Sustainability in transport: where are we and where do we go from here?

26 July 2023

The European Union's goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050 is certainly ambitious and positive, but the more pressing question is how realistic it is. Especially considering where we stand in terms of technological development and the extent of efforts still required to deem climate neutrality as an achievable goal.

The challenge is multifaceted and comprises several building blocks that aren't necessarily interdependent - industrial pollution, private transport, the transport and logistics sector, among others. It's clear that substantial efforts will be required across all domains. Yet, one of the most critical components is emissions from transport, which currently account for roughly 25% of the total emissions.

Currently, in the road transport market, there's an emergence of more and more passenger car solutions tailored for private use. However, there's an evident gap in competitive electric vehicles for freight, minibus, maritime, and river transport segments that align with sustainable mobility criteria. Regrettably, the reality is that the electric vehicles available in the market largely don't meet the performance requirements and needs of these sectors. This implies that the adoption of electric vehicles might lead to disproportionate hikes in the cost of services these sectors offer, making them misaligned with economic realities.

Thus, a pressing question for today and looking ahead is whether electric car manufacturers will eventually devise technology congruent with the needs and economic scope of these sectors. Perhaps they might. But I firmly believe that industries should be receptive to alternative solutions.

What are the alternatives?

Looking at the current market alternatives, several options present themselves. On one hand, there are fuel producers offering so-called renewable diesel. However, in reality, at least in our region, it's scarcely available and significantly pricier. The infrastructure for electric vehicle charging stations is advanced, and the cost of electricity is comparable. But the charging process is time-consuming, rendering it economically unfeasible for sectors that measure efficiency in minutes.

Another avenue to explore is hydrogen molecule technology, with its sole by-product being clean water. For land transport, the main challenges within this solution are the refuelling infrastructure and the vehicle's cost. However, the scenario changes when considering maritime and river transport.

For instance, technology is already being developed in Latvia for motorboats that promise longer travel ranges and the execution of energy-intensive tasks. These boats could also function as mini ferries, connecting islands and bays in the water-rich regions of Northern Europe. Their upkeep costs are considerably lower than those powered by fossil fuels, and soon major Latvian ports like Liepāja, Rīga, and Ventspils are planning to expand their hydrogen refuelling station networks, also integrating into the hydrogen corridor of the Nordic and Baltic states. This will facilitate various state and port services to execute their functions in an environmentally friendly and economically favorable manner.

Therefore, it's evident that alternatives do exist and are likely to proliferate in the future. I am personally convinced that sooner or later, every sector will have to seek solutions tailored to its unique needs. It's doubtful that in the near future we can entirely forgo long-haul trucks in the cargo transport sector in favor of electric trains within the European Union borders. Or that a cargo vehicle that can travel for 9 hours on a single charge will emerge soon. However, it's highly plausible that in two decades, fossil-fueled private cars will be a rarity, and water transport will predominantly be hydrogen-powered.

What does this mean for businesses? They need to innovate technologies that cater to the specific requirements and economic realities of each sector, taking into account their distinctive capacity and logistics needs. The frequency with which companies renew their fleet should also be considered, ensuring that when the time comes, they can offer apt transport solutions. Without such renewal, by 2035, purchasing new vehicles powered by fossil fuels will be impossible, and the second-hand market might not offer sustainable solutions.

A positive trend to acknowledge is the active participation of Latvian businesses in tackling global climate challenges. For example, the company Electrify H2 is innovating hydrogen technology for multifunctional motorboats.

In conclusion, the success in reaching the European Union's climate neutrality goal will not solely hinge on technology but also on our ability to flexibly approach challenges from an industry perspective, avoid imposing one-size-fits-all solutions on businesses, and continuously search and identify alternatives. In such a scenario, businesses will autonomously discover the most efficient ways to implement sustainable business models in the broadest sense.

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