Wednesday 12 April 2023

IPCC and United Nations appeal for investment in a sustainable transition

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At the latest meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Switzerland last month, the latest synthesis report was released. Over the five years of IPCC reports, there has been a continuous rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making the challenge ever more difficult. In this latest update, there was an emphasis on the many practical and efficient methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and coping with human-caused climate change. To address climate change, more needs to be done than has been planned at the current pace and scale. Although the extraordinary scope of the effort needed to reduce global warming to 1.5°C has already been highlighted, it is clear is that the solutions already exist and that of course, one of those solutions is rail.

Net GHG emissions have increased since 2010 across all major sectors, including 15% (8.7 GtCO2-eq) from transport. UIC has monitored rail data over the same period and can show that this sector has actually reduced its emissions, contrary to the trend shown in the IPCC report. This means that the advances made by the rail sector have been absorbed by other modes of transport.

Beyond gains in energy and emissions efficiency, a significant modal shift driven by demand-side options for low-GHG emissions like walking and cycling (zero emissions) and public transport and rail (low emissions) can encourage consumer behaviour and deliver the shift required to revert that trend. Therefore, in this decade ahead, the market share must increase by over 40%, and freight logistics flows will need to exploit rail’s potential more actively in terms of volume and efficiency. Estimates based on the IEA World Energy Outlook point to the potential to cumulatively reduce CO2 emissions between now and 2050 by 460 Mt, which is the equivalent of all heavy-duty road freight tailpipe emissions in 2021 from Mexico, the United States and Canada combined. This can be achieved by shifting activity to rail. By 2050 about 15% of flights should be moved to high-speed rail, as well as more than 2% of private vehicle road travel.

This sixth synthesis report shows that climate-resilient development holds an important key to the problem. This entails combining strategies to combat climate change with those that lessen or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in ways that have broader positive effects. If existing restrictions are removed, there is sufficient global capital to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly. To meet the world’s climate targets, more money must be allocated to climate investments. Governments have a crucial role in removing these barriers through public investment and unambiguous signals to investors.

Technological advancement, transfer, capacity building and financing can help developing countries and regions to advance toward or switch to low-emission transportation systems, resulting in a number of co-benefits. These multiple benefits for rail have demonstrated impacts in the reduction of noise, congestion, accidents and environmental pollution. The report also shows a high confidence that women and children will see more of these health benefits.

Hot on the heels of the IPCC report, is the United Nations Financing for Sustainable Development Report 2023, which makes it clear that there is a growing financing need, but development investments being made are not keeping pace and indeed have slowed down recently. This finance gap has motivated the UN Secretary-General to call for an SDG Stimulus to significantly increase affordable, long-term financing for development in areas such as transport infrastructure. A key point is that the transformation will require large-scale public investments in sustainable infrastructure and other public goods, and the fiscal space to maintain such investments. A key challenge highlighted is that “externalities both negative (pollution or carbon emissions) or positive […] are not well aligned with the public good” and public policy needs to correct this. An enabling environment for sustainable industrial transformation requires corrective policy intervention to “internalise” the externalities, giving carbon taxes as an example of how that might be achieved.

In 2022, the UIC launched the “More Trains” campaign to bring together a global group of railway organisations who are passionate about the role that rail can play in decarbonising mobility. Through its work, the group showcases the advances made by the industry in its commitment to climate and sustainability goals, but also advocates for more political and financial engagement to take its potential further.

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

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