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Not all green transport policies are made equal. A new report looks at ways of accelerating the urban transition

The Transition Monitor 2023 outlines the divisive issues key to the urban infrastructure transformation, and some ways to speed up the process.

The Transition Monitor 2023 outlines the divisive issues key to the urban infrastructure transformation, and some ways to speed up the process. Image: Unsplash/jtkyber1

Ewan Thomson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Differences of opinion on how to reach net-zero could slow global progress on decarbonization goals, warns a new report from Siemens.
  • The Transition Monitor 2023 outlines the divisive issues key to the urban infrastructure transformation, and some ways to speed up the process.
  • Urban decarbonization was also on the agenda of the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings 18-22 September.

While the global goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 is clear, there is more than one way to get there and little consensus on which route to take. Differing opinions on the best way forward could threaten the speed, scalability and efficiency of the transition, particularly in urban infrastructure, according to a new report.

Every city has differing philosophies, resources, budgets and unique challenges – a situation this year’s Siemens Infrastructure Transition Monitor report describes as the “great divide”, as it seeks to answer some of the key questions for urban decarbonization strategies.

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“The infrastructure transition is urgent, and the consequences of delay are severe,” says Matthias Rebellius, Siemens Managing Board Member and Chief Executive of Smart Infrastructure. "To reverse, or at least slow down global warming – and to make the world more resilient to climate change – we need to transform our infrastructure at unprecedented speed and scale. To do this, we need greater alignment, collaboration, and standardization.”

Here are some of the divisive issues in urban infrastructure transformation and the solutions to accelerate the transition to net-zero.

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How is the World Economic Forum helping to scale vehicle electrification?

Why supporting urban areas is so important for decarbonization

Cities are responsible for over 60% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and 78% of global energy, despite accounting for less than 2% of the Earth’s surface, according to the United Nations (UN).

Urban centers are heavy polluters, but they can also pivot quickly to put climate solutions first, quicker than governments in many cases, the report says.

One common goal across cities is decarbonizing transport. Urban mobility unlocks economic growth, but also consumes significant resources and emits a lot of greenhouse gasses, which can lead to congestion and pollution.

Creating an effective pathway to achieving a green transport system is a significant challenge. Layering new systems into a busy built-up environment – together with the scale of funding required – will raise complex questions on the way to transformation.

Which should come first – more EVs or more EV charging stations?

The report surveyed over 1,400 global senior executives working in urban infrastructure on the key issues, as well as conducting in-depth interviews with leaders and experts.

The dilemma for electric vehicles (EVs) in urban areas is whether to focus first on building EV infrastructure or creating demand for EVs. It's an enduring debate that may have slowed progress – only 29% of survey respondents reported mature or advanced progress in city-wide EV charging infrastructure.

For Matteo Craglia, Transport Analyst & Modeler at the International Transport Forum the answer is clear – infrastructure comes first.

Infographic illustrating the progress and priorities on infrastructure transition goals for regions.
While the report shows that urban EV charging infrastructure is a budget priority, less than a third of respondents say progress is advanced. Image: Siemens

“Without charging infrastructure, electric vehicles can’t be adopted. The same is true for low-carbon fuels. This is a challenge because there’s no demand for these fuels yet, which makes infrastructure projects financially risky. But governments must help to manage these risks by providing direction to the market and potentially subsidizing infrastructure in the short term. This will help to create demand and accelerate the decarbonization process.”

Should petrol/diesel cars be phased out?

Taxing petrol and diesel cars while incentivizing EVs is a way to encourage greener private transport, but opinions on the approach are divided.

The survey results show that 46% of executives say subsidies or taxes should be used to make EVs cheaper than petrol or diesel vehicles, and while only 25% disagree, regional variations were significant. The report also stressed that this issue is also of key importance to voters, and “the kind of policy that can win or lose an election”.

Chart illustrating the countries that believe subsidies or taxes should be used to make electric cars cheaper than petrol/diesel cars.
There is broad agreement subsidies and other incentives should be used to make EVs cheaper, but regional differences remain. Image: Siemens

In Switzerland, for example, politicians are unwilling to give penalties to vehicles running on fossil fuels, according to Marco Luethi, Director at transport firm Verkehrsbetriebe Zürich.

“We still see a lot of non-electric cars in cities, even where there is good charging infrastructure. This is because the initial cost of purchasing an electric car is much higher than an equivalent petrol or diesel car. In my opinion, we need to levy stronger penalties on non-sustainable energy consumption and penalize petrol and diesel vehicles more.”

Have you read?

Should we wait for breakthroughs in technology?

Is there a new technology about to be released that will reshape urban transportation? Is it worth waiting for?

There are plenty of nascent technologies in the urban transport space, from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to electric vertical take-off aircraft, but there is no need to wait, the report says, as the tools for the job are already in place.

“While advancements in technology are valuable, they are not the missing piece that will solve the problem,” says Thomas Kiessling, chief technology officer at Siemens Smart Infrastructure.

“Instead, what we urgently need are faster decision-making processes, improved regulatory frameworks, a heightened sense of urgency, effective execution, and an optimistic and entrepreneurial mindset to take decisive action.”

Charts illustrating respondents choosing their top three technologies for each of decarbonization, resouce efficiency and social impact.
Digitization, AI and energy storage will be the leading technologies to positively impact society, the survey shows. Image: Siemens

The role of technology in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was one of the topics of discussion at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings in New York on 19 September. Speakers, including Wesley Spindler of Accenture and Forum Top Innovator Rodrigo Oliveira, discussed how entrepreneurs around the world are using nature-based and circular economy technology solutions to close the shortfall in SDG targets.

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