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8 Charts Show How ‘Aggressive’ Railway Expansion Could Cut Emissions

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AaronChenPs / Moment / Getty Images

By Jocelyn Timperley

Global transport emissions could peak in the 2030s if railways are "aggressively" expanded, said the International Energy Agency (IEA).


Rail is among the most efficient and lowest emitting modes of transport, according to the IEA's new report focusing on the opportunities it offers for energy and the environment.

In particular, urban and high-speed rail hold "major promise to unlock substantial benefits," the report says, which include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, congestion and air pollution.

In a foreword to the report, Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director, argues rail transport is "often neglected" in public debates about future transport systems. "Despite the advent of cars and airplanes, rail of all types has continued to evolve and thrive," he said.

Carbon Brief takes a look at eight key charts from the report showing the status of rail in the world today—and how it could reduce emissions in future.

Energy-Efficient Rail

Rail transport is the most electrified transport sector, the IEA said. Globally, three-quarters of rail passenger movements and half of rail freight relies on electricity.

This means it is "uniquely positioned" to take advantage of the rise of renewables in the electricity mix.

It is also the most energy-efficient means of motorized passenger transport, and is far more efficient than road freight and aviation, as the chart below shows.

Chart above: Energy intensity of different transport modes in 2017. The left-hand chart shows energy intensity of passenger transport, in tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) per million passenger km travelled. The right-hand chart shows energy intensity of freight transport, in toe per million tonne km transported. Source: IEA 2019.

Rail accounts for 8 percent of the world's motorized passenger movements and 7 percent of freight transport, yet uses just 2 percent of the world's transport energy demand, the report says.

Global rail energy demand has remained relatively constant in recent years, adds the report. Since 2000, it has fallen in the EU and Japan, increased in Russia, China and India, and stayed relatively constant in North America. Diesel freight trains account for roughly half of rail energy use, while electricity accounts for the rest.

It also acts as an "oil saver," the IEA said. If all services performed by railways were instead carried by planes, cars and trucks, transport-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would be 1.2bn tonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) per year higher, the report says. This is equivalent to the emissions of the whole of Africa.

Low-Emission Rail

As it stands, around 0.3 percent of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels come from rail, says the report (this compares to around 2 percent for global aviation). However, the emissions from trains vary widely, depending on if they are powered by diesel or electricity, as well as how that electricity is generated.

Electric trains can reduce emissions compared with diesel-powered trains, said the IEA, but only if the power generation mix is not dependent on fuels with high carbon content, such as coal. This is shown in the chart below.

Chart above: Average well-to-wheel (WTW) carbon intensities for diesel powertrains and electric powertrains using various primary sources, in grammes of CO2e per megajoule. Source: IEA 2019.

The report notes:

"The much lower carbon intensity of rail (per passenger- or tonne-km) compared with most other modes of transport, means the rail sector already plays a key role in containing global GHG emissions. Looking forward, efficient electric motors and increasingly low-carbon power mixes could enable rail to contribute substantially to achieving zero-emission mobility from a well-to-wheel (WTW) perspective."

However, as the report notes, emissions from railway construction and maintenance must also be taken into account when assessing the capacity of rail projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Railway lines—in particular, those with numerous tunnels, viaducts and bridges—use large amounts of concrete and steel.

According to the IEA, environmental life-cycle assessments show that the rail projects best able to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) are those that minimize the need for large amounts of steel, iron and concrete in construction; have a high passenger or freight throughput; and help to shift away from other modes of transport with even higher carbon intensities, such as car, trucks and aviation.

Regional Differences

Most rail networks are located in India, China, Japan, Europe, North America and Russia, said the IEA. Meanwhile, metro and light rail networks operate in most of the world's major cities.

Global conventional rail tracks have not significantly expanded over the past 20 years, said the IEA, but light, metro, and high-speed rail have all seen big rises, as the chart below shows.

Chart above: Track length by region from 1995-2016 for light rail (light green), metro rail (dark green), high-speed rail (dark blue) and conventional rail (light blue line). Note that conventional rail includes infrastructure used both by conventional passenger and freight rail.

The energy efficiency of trains also show large regional differences. Passenger trains are less energy efficient in the U.S. and the EU than in Asia, primarily due to lower occupancy, as the chart below shows.

Chart above: Energy intensities of passenger (left) and freight (right) rail in 2016. Source: IEA 2019.

Korea, Japan, Europe, China and Russia all have rail networks which are more than 60 percent electrified, with the highest share of track electrification being Korea at around 85 percent. North and South America, on the other hand, both have less than 5 percent rail electrification.

Global rail activity is slowly shifting towards electricity for both passenger and freight rail transport, added the IEA.

High-Speed Rail

High-speed rail lines have expanded rapidly in recent years, said the IEA. This is especially the case in China, which has seen large investment in high-speed rail lines and urban rail networks. Networks in Europe and Japan have also expanded, as the chart below shows.

Chart above: High-speed rail track length in key regions in 2010 and 2017. Source: IEA 2019.

Worldwide, around 600bn passenger km were travelled by high-speed rail in 2016, compared to around 100bn passenger km in 2000.

India is currently constructing its first high-speed line from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. Rail remains the primary transport mode in India and its rail activity is set to grow more than any other country, said the IEA.

High-speed rail is particularly important as it offers an established low-carbon alternative to short-distance flights, said the IEA. It said:

"As incomes rise, demand for passenger aviation, a mode of transport that is extremely difficult and expensive to decarbonize, will continue to grow rapidly.

"If designed with comfort and reliability as key performance criteria, high-speed rail can provide an attractive, low-emissions substitute to flying."

The overall impact on GHG emissions of a new high-speed rail line depends on many factors, such as passenger behavior and operational practices, says the report. But a new high-speed line can produce "almost immediate net CO2 benefits" by reducing air and car journeys, said the IEA.

High-speed rail lines can reduce aviation transport on the same routes by as much as 80 percent, said the IEA. The chart below shows the average change in passenger activity on selected air routes after new high-speed rail lines opened.

Chart above: Average change in passenger activity on selected air routes after high-speed rail implementation. Source: IEA 2019.

For example, as the chart shows, the opening of the Brussels-London Eurostar reduced the number of km travelled by plane on that route by around 55 percent.

Urban rail also holds substantial promise to reduce emissions, the IEA said, though this varies substantially between regions. The emissions savings from metro rail construction, for example, will depend on whether it attracts commuters who would otherwise use a car, as well as the emissions intensity of its power supply, the report adds.

Freight Expansion

Rail freight has risen steadily over the past 20 years and continues to expand in most countries, said the IEA. However, other forms of surface freight, such as trucks, are expanding faster, it adds. Most freight rail carries minerals, coal or agricultural products.

The U.S. and China each account for about a quarter of global rail freight activity and Russia about a fifth, says the report. In some countries freight train transport vastly outweighs passenger rail. In the U.S., for example, around 93 percent of kilometers travelled by train are for freight rather than passengers. Around a third of this is for the transport of coal.

Rail uses around 90% less energy than trucks per unit of freight and is the "only transport mode offering serious competition with trucks for land-based freight," said the IEA. Freight trains in Russia and China are the most energy efficient due to high loading and electrification, added the IEA.

The chart below shows the potential for new freight rail lines to reduce emissions compared to road transport. In a "high potential" case, where rail construction has low emissions, trains are efficient and low carbon, and train occupancy is high, reductions in GHG emissions are seen after just two years. However, even in a "low potential" case, GHG reductions are seen after 24 years.

Chart above: Annual life-cycle total GHG emissions, emissions savings and time needed to compensate upfront emissions from the building of a new freight train line in high, medium and low potential cases. Source: IEA 2019.

High-Rail Scenario

The IEA sets out two scenarios for rail expansion up to 2050 in its report. The emissions resulting from these two scenarios are shown in the chart below.

In the "base scenario," which assumes no significant new emphasis on rail in policymaking, annual investment in rail infrastructure increases to $330bn in 2050. The global track length of metros and high-speed rail both expand by 2.5 times. However, rail does no more worldwide than maintain its current share in activity relative to cars and air travel by 2050.

In this case, global transport emissions would continue to increase out to 2050 and beyond.

In the "high-rail" scenario, meanwhile, annual average investment reaches $770bn by 2050. The track length of high-speed rail increases by around 3.5 times, while metro tracks increase four-fold. Global passenger activity on rail is 60% higher than in the base scenario.

Significant emphasis is put on policy-making which encourages rail travel in this scenario.

First, policies are implemented to minimize the costs of rail travel by ensuring maximum rail network usage and working to remove technical barriers.

Second, efforts are made to maximize rail revenues, such as by capitalizing on the increase in value in homes and businesses due to rail expansion.

A third set of policies ensures that all forms of transport pays for their societal and environmental impacts, such as through fuel taxes and congestion charges.

In combination, these policies lead to greenhouse gases from global transport being 0.6 GtCO2e per year lower than in the base scenario, roughly the annual emissions of South Korea. This "aggressive, strategic deployment" of rail would see CO2 emissions from global transport peak in the late 2030s, said the IEA.

Achieving this scenario is an "ambitious, yet achievable undertaking," a spokesperson for the IEA tells Carbon Brief. They added:

"It would require significant and strategic investments on the part of companies working directly and indirectly in the rail sector, coordinated with ambitious policy action on the part of local and national governments."

Responding to the report, Prof. Clive Roberts, director of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education at the University of Birmingham, said the rail sector has "huge potential to embrace new energy and digital technologies." He told Carbon Brief:

"The [IEA] report comes at a time when the international railway industry needs to come together to develop a strategy to ensure the railway sector continues to retain its energy efficient status, ensuring rail contributes fully to future mobility."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

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Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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