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Moving towards a carbon-free transport system

Moving towards a carbon-free transport system

As we plan to achieve a carbon-neutral future to address climate change and environmental concerns, transportation poses a major challenge. It is estimated that one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from transport. This encompasses things such as ships, aeroplanes and trucks, but a big part of the picture is passenger vehicles. By 2040, the number of cars worldwide will surge to 2 billion.

If we still wish to strive for the goals of the European Green Deal as enacted in December 2019, which strives to establish a carbon neutral economy by 2050, the transport sector needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 95% by 2050.

Adoption of electric cars and improvements in battery technology are encouraging. However, the fact is that electrification alone cannot get us to full decarbonisation or net-zero emissions. We also need to look at making the fuels we use greener.

Why electrification is not enough

Electrification certainly will be part of the solution, especially if the electricity that powers transportation comes from renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar plants.

But there are limits. The pace of electric vehicle adoption depends not only on consumers and businesses making the choice to switch but also the availability of materials for batteries and other components. The longevity of existing non-electric conventional vehicles also means it will be decades before most cars and trucks on roads around the world are fully electric. A best-case scenario, for example, is that half of cars sold by 2030 would be fully electric.

Improvements in technology also have helped decrease emissions over the years by increasing efficiency of combustion engines. But there is a finite limit to these improvements. By 2030, conventional combustion engines will be as efficient as they will ever be.

The bottom line is that: by 2050, almost 50% of passenger cars and 70% of trucks will still be partially powered by a combustion engine. The rate of replacement with fully electric vehicles simply is not fast enough.

Greater focus needed on ‘e-fuels’

The necessary carbon reduction for existing vehicles is not possible without low-carbon fuels, or e-fuels. E-fuels are synthetic fuels resulting from the combination of green hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water with renewable energy and captured carbon dioxide (this can be from the air directly or as the byproduct of another process).

There are other ways to get to green fuels, such as biofuels, but e-fuels hold a tremendous amount of promise because of the growing proliferation of renewable energies. Renewable energy is a key to the entire process because it enables so many things to happen, such as the production of green hydrogen.

Hydrogen is critical for development of green fuels 

Of course, hydrogen itself can serve as a fuel for vehicles. But hydrogen fuel cells require an infrastructure that does not exist yet and is even more under-developed than electric refuelling stations. Transportation of raw hydrogen is also a challenge. However, when hydrogen is converted into liquid fuels, it can be moved around using the existing infrastructure, which is another benefit to e-fuels.

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To make hydrogen today, you need a carbon fuel source. Most of it now comes from natural gas, which is not sustainable in the long run. Truly green hydrogen is created with renewable energy, which is why regions with abundant wind and solar resources, such as Saudi Arabia, hold such promise. Costs for this technology are starting to drop, like what happened to solar energy over the last decade — making now an opportune time to invest in green hydrogen.

Decarbonisation of transport is within reach

E-fuels also will help decarbonise other aspects of transportation. There is no feasible way to electrify aeroplanes in the near future, for example, so the only way to make such travel greener is through low-carbon fuels. Some near-term developments may refine e-fuel technologies even more. For example, processes for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are in the nascent stage, and once developed, they may well provide the carbon for hydrogen e-fuel production, as well as contribute to decarbonising the atmosphere.

With transportation being a major contributor to greenhouse gases, there is a need for drastic change. Since adoption of electric cars is likely to be slow, and combustion engine technology is fast becoming as efficient as it likely will become, we need additional solutions to meet global climate change and carbon-free targets. E-fuels can help fill the gap and will continue to evolve in the future, getting us on the path towards realising a truly carbon-free transport system.

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