Wednesday 15 December 2021

COP26 and what it all means for the railways

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The UIC, as official observer organisation of the United Nations, once again represented the global railway community at the 26th UNFCCC Conference for the parties leading and participating in events at the COP and on the fringe, emphasizing the role of rail and public transport as a climate solution, with speakers from members and partners. Despite a range of really exciting events, the debate remained unbalanced, with public transport as well as walking and cycling being distinctly absent in the announcements and the national plans. There is still much to do to bring home to our world leaders the critical role of rail and public transport in reversing the ever-increasing transport emissions if we are to get anywhere near the ambitions of the Paris Agreement.

The main outcome of the conference was the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’, resulting in a significant degree of global progress. Apart from the headline-grabbing declarations, what are the possible implications of the Glasgow Climate Pact for the railways?

Declarations on Zero Emission Cars and Vans

One of the headline-grabbing announcements from Glasgow was the ‘COP26 DECLARATION ON ACCELERATING THE TRANSITION TO 100% ZERO EMISSION CARS AND VANS’. The title makes clear the focus and priority of the debate, with those countries signing up to the declaration committing to a 2040 deadline for sales of fossil fuel cars and vans. However, successful lobbying resulted in an important addition:

We recognise that alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport, as well as addressing the full value chain impacts from vehicle production, use and disposal.

While this appears to be an afterthought in many ways, this acknowledgement of the need for system thinking is important and a narrative that we as a railway community can build upon.

Transport key to the climate agenda

The presence of transport ministers was important. Gone are the days when the COP was only attended by national environment ministers. This year heralded the recognition that transport is key to meeting the Paris Agreement goals and that transport ministers must engage in the climate agenda. The inaugural gathering of transport ministers from 15 countries has taken place. Many of them shared ambitious plans for changes in mobility in their country. Ministers from the US, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Brazil, Scotland, Sweden, India, Ghana and the European Commission spoke under the chairmanship of UK Undersecretary Trudi Harrison. The Swedish minister stated that “transport ministers are environment ministers” declaring Sweden’s ambition to be the first fossil fuel free country. The Irish minister announced steps to bring about a modal shift and an ‘avoid’ strategy with a 2:1 investment in favour of public transport rather than road, as well as a law introducing annual carbon tax rises (100 euros per tonne by 2030). The Ghanaian minister made the important point that Africa is bearing the brunt of climate change already, despite being responsible for only a very small part of the emissions. He stressed the vulnerability of his country and region; the fact that the transport infrastructure is much less established; and the opportunity for a technological transfer from developed to developing country. The EU spokesperson made it clear they were not ’backing off’ despite the pandemic and that transport is central to both the EU economy and the plans to decarbonise. Brazil made mention of rail’s direct environmental benefits, presenting plans to shift freight to rail, with new infrastructure planned.

Throughout the two weeks of the conference, the transport debate focused on privately owned vehicles and the transition to electric or hydrogen cars and trucks, while there was also discussion around other ‘hard-to-abate’ modes such as aviation and maritime shipping. UIC, with members and partners, highlighted that we do not have time to wait for the new technologies for the hard-to-abate modes. This decade is crucial in halting emission growth. The railways are already largely electrified and the technology proven, and by connecting to other forms of public transport including cycling and walking, the solution is already here. UIC also highlighted the co-benefits of rail and public transport; better supporting an inclusive transition to a new paradigm; providing social benefits of improved access to mobility for a wider range of people; cleaner air; and freeing up space and time in our streets and on our roads.

Call to refresh nationally determined contributions

With so many exciting declarations being made in week one of the conference, it is confusing to read that analysis predicts that the current national plans will still add up to 2.4 degrees of warming. There is a ‘disconnect’ between the grand statements and what is documented in the official nationally determined contributions (NDCs). For this reason an appeal was made to each of the parties to revisit their NDC. This presents a real opportunity for public transport and rail to improve policies and raise binding targets in our favour.

The countries first submitted their NDCs in 2015. Of the 166 NDC submissions representing 193 countries, 76% highlighted the transport sector as a mitigation source, but only 8% included transport-specific greenhouse gas mitigation targets. The International Transport Forum has been tracking the second generation of NDCs, the most recent of which were announced in Glasgow. 97% of NDCs now do mention transport, and 80% include measures for transport decarbonisation. While the number of NDCs with CO2 reduction targets for transport have increased from 8% to 16%, they are still in the minority. In terms of ‘avoid-shift-improve’ strategies, the majority (65%) of mitigation measures mentioned in the NDCs represented ‘improve’ strategies, while only 28% represented ‘shift’ and 7% represented ‘avoid’. Only 16% of NDCs included transport adaptation. The NDCs also tend to focus more on passenger transport and less than a quarter referenced freight traffic.

UIC has worked together with the ITF to develop the rail element of their Transport Climate Action Directory, providing guidance to national governments on the full range of policy options that can be embedded in the NDCs. This quick refresh of the national plans presents another opportunity to boost the ambition and presence of ‘shift to rail’ policy steps.

Transport and climate finance

The presence of finance ministers in addition to the transport ministers was noticeable at the COP this year, as was participation from the private and regional development banks. COP26 marked progress on climate finance.
The developed countries confirmed their commitment to reaching the USD 100 billion goal a year as soon as possible (2022 rather than 2023 is a real possibility). They also committed to doubling their collective provision of adaptation finance for 2021-2025, moving towards a balance between mitigation and adaptation, and engaging in a process for long-term climate finance beyond 2025. A joint statement was made with a multilateral development bank to align the portfolio to the Paris goals and end finance going to the ‘unabated’ use of coal. The newly formed ‘Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero’, which together accounts for USD 130 trillion of private capital, announced that they will accelerate the transition to a net-zero economy, making clear that transparency and climate risk disclosure will start to gain in importance.

Another breakthrough was the completion of the ‘Paris Rulebook’, where agreement was finally reached on Article 6 and the rules for the international carbon markets, as well as on the transparency of reporting on greenhouse gas emissions. What was crucial about this was closing the loophole on so-called ‘double counting’ which allowed carbon credits to be counted by multiple countries. Now that these rules have been set, further global cooperation on emission reductions can be made more easily and with greater transparency. In support of Article 6, Article 13 will allow for transparency involving a new international registry and reporting platform. The importance of this should not be underestimated and UIC will follow this closely to be sure that our own reporting can be aligned.

All this is important for transport. Why? Because this finance can and must be made available to fund transformation projects in public transport and rail, particularly in the developing world. The UIC and its members are taking this opportunity seriously. The newly developed Index, which is a free reporting and rating tool created by the UIC, is designed to help access sustainable finance through improved data and transparency.

Looking forward to COP27, an African COP hosted by an Egyptian presidency, there is an imperative to champion and amplify the voices of our members and partners in the Global South. We must consider the specific challenges of mobility in low-income countries and emerging economies and the opportunities of a global community to provide technology and knowledge transfer. UIC has at its core the value of solidarity and the global railway community will certainly rise to this challenge.

For further information, please contact Lucie Anderton, Head of the UIC Sustainable Unit, at

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