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Preparing transportation for oil depletion

Much of Transport Revolutions is taken up with reviewing previous revolutions in transportation and describing transportation today, its impacts and energy use. The energy analysis notes that 95 per cent of motorized travel and freight movement by land, sea, and air is fuelled by oil products, accounting worldwide for consumption of some 60% of crude oil. Just over 50% of oil-based transport fuels moves people, just under 50% moves freight.

Motorized movement of people grows by about 2% per year worldwide, totaling some 20 trillion person-miles; about a quarter of this comprises travel in, to, and from the U.S. Motorized movement of freight grows by about 4% per year, totaling some 40 trillion ton-miles; about a sixth of this comprises freight movement in, to, and from the U.S. Oil use for transportation grows more slowly than transport activity but more quickly than use for other purposes.

Overwhelmingly, motorized movement of people is by land, about 90% of total person-miles, and movement of freight is by water, about 75% of total ton-miles. More than a third of all freight activity is movement of oil and oil products.

Motorized transportation provides enormous benefits. It facilitates and even stimulates just about everything now regarded as progress. It also produces major costs, notably fatalities and injuries from road traffic crashes, and the adverse effects of emissions from the burning of oil products in vehicles’ internal combustion engines.

Modern societies require prodigious amounts of transportation for their functioning, now almost wholly fuelled by oil products. During the next decade major shortfalls are likely to emerge between ‘business-as-usual’ projections of oil consumption and oil production. The resulting scarcity and high oil prices will present what may be humankind’s greatest challenge, more than climate change, at least for the short and medium terms.

Our assessment of numerous alternatives to oil as a transport fuel concludes that, as oil depletion progresses, only electricity could reasonably power acceptable levels of land transportation. Oil products will be increasingly limited to fuelling marine transportation and aviation.

Movement over water can be highly fuel efficient if speeds are low; and oil use can be further reduced by exploiting wind energy. (Transport Revolutions’ cover portrays a ship deploying a towing kite.) There are no feasible alternatives to oil products for aviation, which could undergo the most radical changes over next few decades. It could be increasingly confined to large, fully occupied aircraft flying a small number of mostly intercontinental routes.

Electricity is an advantageous energy source for land transportation in every respect except one: it cannot be stored on board vehicles in acceptable quantities. This disadvantage can be overcome by delivering electricity to vehicles while in motion. Grid-connected electric vehicles have provided transportation for at least as long as vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. As electric trains, streetcars, and trolleybuses, they provide most public transit in most of the world’s major cities. We anticipate substantial expansion in the use of this kind of vehicle, with development and some deployment of unfamiliar systems including trolley trucks and personal grid-connected vehicles.

Electric vehicles offer the important advantage of independence from how their fuel is produced. Electricity generation can transition among a variety of sources—from coal generation to solar thermal generation—without changes in the transport system. Electric traction is well suited to the necessary transition from non-renewable to renewable energy.

Increased use of electricity could bring greater reliance on coal generation. We demonstrate that such reliance can be avoided through ready reduction in electricity consumption for other purposes and development of numerous opportunities for renewable generation.

At the heart of planning for oil depletion is whether it will be anticipated in a timely manner. If anticipated, the result could be a ‘soft landing’ into oil depletion. If not, scarcity and price increases during oil depletion could produce a ‘hard landing’ involving economic and social disruption and dysfunctional panic responses.

A central feature of Transport Revolutions is analysis of how two countries, the U.S. and China, could begin redesign of their transport systems for oil depletion. These are the most challenging cases among richer and poorer countries. The year 2025 is the focus for this scenario-building, recognizing that it will be an early point in a long era of oil depletion; 2025 is far enough ahead to allow substantial change in transport systems, but near enough to impel early action.

The overall target, based on realistic expectations of oil production, is to reduce world oil consumption for transportation to 35% below a ‘business-as-usual’ projection for 2025, or about 17% below consumption in 2007. The reduction would be shared unevenly between richer and poorer countries so that the U.S. would reduce consumption by 40% from its 2007 level and China would increase consumption by no more than 25% above its 2007 level (still much below projected consumption).

The objective for transport activity within, to, and from the U.S. is to maintain the current overall level, which would amount to a reduction by about 15% per capita by 2025. The comparable objective for China is to grow movement of people and freight to no more than four times current levels, i.e., to about a fifth of current U.S. per-capita movement of people and a half of current U.S. per-capita movement of freight.

The key feature of the transport redesign proposed for both countries is massive expansion of electrically powered land transportation. Movement of people in the U.S., for example, would be 30% electrically powered in 2025 compared with well under 1% today.

We outline how these changes could be achieved in each country, if serious redesign were to begin in 2010. The period until 2010 is critical. We have qualified optimism that enough progress can be made. In the U.S., the 2008 election campaign offers unparalleled opportunities for proposing, debating, and securing acceptance of appropriate strategies to accommodate oil depletion. In China, the political success of the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games could hinge on demonstration of serious intent to curtail consumption of oil and other fossil fuels.

During 1942, in an earlier era of transport revolutions, land transportation in the U.S. was radically transformed. In 1941, 3.8 million automobiles rolled off U.S. assembly lines. In 1943, the total was 143, yes 143. Car travel fell by half between 1941 and 1943; use of public transit tripled. From our Canadian perspectives, we believe that the U.S. remains capable of the kind of decisive innovation that yielded the transport revolutions necessary for saving western democracies during the Second World War. We are similarly confident that China could take bold actions to move away from its oil-intensive transport trajectory. Transport Revolutions was written to help stimulate and facilitate such transformations.

This commentary is based on the authors’ Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil, to be published by Earthscan (London, UK) in December 2007. See www.transportrevolutions.info for a table of contents, 24 of the book’s 376 pages, and ordering information.

Richard Gilbert is a Toronto-based consultant who focuses on transport and energy issues. Anthony Perl is Professor of Political Science at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent ASPO-USA's positions; they are personal statements and observations by informed commentators.)

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