• Max Åhman
    Max Åhman
  • Automobile collage
    Automobile collage

Slow train coming – understanding the alternatives to fossil fuels

Opinion: Max Åhman, Senior researcher, Environmental and Energy Systems Studies, Lund University


 After 40 years of experimentation, the next 10 years could be the breakthrough for sustainable transport, but more and better understanding of the systemic barriers for a sustainable transition is still needed.

Modern society is dependent on effective and affordable transport systems ensuring accessibility for both people and goods. Abundant and low cost fossil energy has powered the transport system ever since motorization at the beginning of the 1900s. However, since the mid-1960s we have seen an increasing focus on the negative side-effects such as air pollution, concerns over energy security and climate change. The need to drastically reduce fossil energy due to climate change is currently the most pressing driver for the search for alternatives with an internal EU target to completely phase out fossil energy in the transport sector by 2050.

The search for alternatives to fossil energy started seriously in the 1970s in the wake of the first oil embargo. The long-term alternatives to fossil energy that have been discussed since the early 1970s are advanced energy efficient vehicles in combination with either biofuels in various forms or renewable electricity or hydrogen as fuels. Further options are now appearing on the horizon such as solar fuels derived from capturing CO2 in the air using solar energy.

“The coming decade will see the introduction of more advanced “2nd generation” of biofuels based on waste and wood.”

There has been a dramatic increase in funding for alternative energy research during the 1970s and thereafter combined with several policy initiatives to financially support alternatives during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000, still the use of fossil energy for transport has continued to grow and represent more than 95% of global energy use in the transport sector. The development of alternative energy has been slow, experienced many set-backs and is, so far, barely noticeable in the statistics.

However, something has happened and after a period of more than 40 years of research, experimentation and searching for the alternatives, the momentum has grown and the efforts are finally beginning to pay off. Today, the sustainable transport community has grown to include thousands of researchers, inventors, and practitioners. All major fuel and vehicle companies are today engaged in exploring sustainable transport solutions and most of the alternatives regarded as futuristic in the 1980s are today for sale as standard options. The introduction of biofuels and energy efficient hybrid vehicles started in the early 2000s and new technologies are currently in the pipe-line for introduction on a large scale. The coming decade will see the introduction of more advanced “2nd generation” of biofuels based on waste and wood. Electric drive in the form of plug-in hybrids and small electric vehicles will soon become a standard option for many types of vehicles.

In spite of the great advances, the scale and complexity of replacing fossil energy in the transport system is huge. Large scale renewable solutions will create new problems. As an example, the rapid global development of biofuels has demonstrated both a great potential to reduce climate emission, poverty and farming diversity but could also, poorly managed, result in increased food insecurity, land grabbing and ultimately increasing climate emissions. Increasing demand for rare raw materials for batteries, electric motors and fuel cells could cause several problems associated with mining. The complexity of the concurrent decarbonisation of the power system and supply of renewable and intermittent electricity are complex challenges that also need attention for these options to fulfil their theoretical potential.

With increasing pressure for finding competitive optionsfor enabling a viable transition towards sustainable transport, the need for both dedicated basic science and research for understanding the systemic effects of future options is more needed than ever. Potential problems and barriers for a sustainable transition need to be researched and understood from a systems view in order to identify appropriate solutions.

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