Transportation in Developing Countries: An Overview of Greenhouse Gas Reduction Strategies
Prepared for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change
Daniel Sperling and Deborah Salon, University of California, Davis
Press Release 
Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change
This report focuses on transportation in developing countries, where economic and social development not climate change mitigation are the top priorities. Yet decisions on infrastructure, vehicle and fuel technologies, and transportation mode mix are being made now that will significantly affect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for decades. The key is to identify strategies that address high-priority local issues while also reducing GHGs. There are many such options but no one-size-fits-all approach. Thus building the capacity of local institutions is especially critical.
Vehicle ownership rates in developing nations are low compared to wealthy ones, but lead to far worse traffic congestion and air pollution. Motorization is skyrocketing and populations increasing, stretching limited infrastructure and institutional capacity. Despite these challenges, there are many opportunities for improvement. Some have worked in the past; others could leapfrog over some of the costly and environmentally damaging paths taken by developed countries.
This overview is part of a five-report series on transportation in developing countries and draws on the four other reports on specific cities and countries. The case studies were researched and co-authored with experts from Chile, China, India, and South Africa, and estimated high and low projections of transportation emissions in 2020 compared to 2000. The case studies key findings include:
The Clean Development Mechanism could be used to finance climate-friendly improvements such as switching to less carbon-intensive feedstock in synthetic fuel production. The Pew Center gratefully acknowledges Ralph Gakenheimer of MIT and Michael Walsh, an independent transportation expert, for their reviews of earlier drafts.
Worldwide, greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster in transportation than in any other sector. Rapid motorization - more cars and trucks - is the principal cause. This report focuses on the challenges faced by developing countries in accommodating and managing motorization and the demand for improved transportation.
Enhanced mobility has many positive effects on economic development and social welfare, including more efficient movement of goods and improved access to jobs, health services, and education. However, if enhanced mobility is achieved primarily through increased reliance on conventional private cars, it can mean diverting substantial financial resources to roads and suffering worse air pollution and traffic congestion. The benefits are enormous, but the costs can also be substantial. These positives and negatives are accentuated in the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most are experiencing rapid population growth and urbanization, and many have fast-growing economies. The number of private vehicles is increasing in almost all developing countries.
The challenges posed by motorization are unprecedented for these countries. When the more developed countries were building their transportation infrastructure, their populations were small compared to those in much of today's developing world, and the cost of motorized vehicles was relatively high. Today's megacities of the developing world are already huge and still expanding. There is little time or money to build public transportation systems or to expand roads to handle the new traffic. They are already experiencing serious congestion, economic and environmental damage, and major safety problems. Yet the problems are not uniform; each city and country faces different circumstances.
This report provides a broad characterization of transportation in developing countries, identifying common challenges and opportunities for policymakers, and suggesting policy options that aim to slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. The most important observations of this report are the following:
This report explores strategic paths and alternative futures that could break the link between economic and greenhouse gas emission growth in developing countries. Successful efforts underway in some developing countries - examples of which are highlighted in some of the case study reports that contributed to this overview - demonstrate that developing countries can forge a more sustainable transportation future. Is there a single city that can be looked to as a model for others? This report suggests that the answer is no. There are cities and countries that have embraced innovative and effective strategies, but none represents a universally applicable model or pathway.
Energy use and carbon emissions around the globe are increasing faster in transportation than in any other sector, and transportation emissions are increasing fastest of all in developing countries. This report does not suggest that developing nations should adopt entirely different transportation systems than currently operate in more developed countries. There is no perfect solution or leapfrog technology at hand. The reality is that most transportation modes and technologies are already being used internationally. The fundamental desire for personal transportation, and for greater mobility at lower cost, is universal. It is neither realistic nor fair to ask those in the developing world to deprive themselves of the things they need and want, from meeting their basic transportation needs to having access to cars.
Instead, this report suggests that developing countries can choose a more sustainable growth path. They can learn from the experiences of industrialized countries in crafting integrated land use and transportation plans, encouraging more efficient forms of vehicle ownership and use, and accelerating the introduction of environmentally sensible vehicle technologies and fuels. Indeed, as a 1996 U.S. National Academy of Sciences report concluded, greater reliance on nonpolluting modes of transportation in developing-country cities, coupled with the strong integration of residential and economic activities, suggests those cities may be in a position to avoid some of the most costly mistakes of transportation investment in the industrialized countries.1
However, the economies and populations of many of these cities are growing at unprecedented rates and personal vehicles are often available to people with very low incomes. Policy and investment decisions with far-reaching implications must be made quickly, or the consequences could be catastrophic economically, environmentally, and socially. But even with the greatest sophistication and best managers, the choices are not obvious. Simply replicating the choices of other cities in most cases would be ineffective. The elements of a successful transportation strategy are likely to vary greatly depending on local circumstances and institutional strengths and weaknesses.
Without new measures, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in the developing world will exceed those in the industrialized world sometime after 2010. While the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions may not be a driving force for developing countries in the foreseeable future, many of the strategies that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions would also address the more immediate problems of local air pollution, access to basic transportation, and infrastructure financing pressures. This report focuses on strategies and policies that not only slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, but also help achieve local priorities.
Dr. Daniel Sperling
Daniel Sperling is Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy, founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS-Davis) at the University of California, Davis, and co-director of UC Davis's Fuel Cell Vehicle Center and New Mobility Center.
Dr. Sperling is Associate Editor of Transportation Research D (Environment), founding chair of the Alternative Transportation Fuels Committee (1989-96) of the U.S. Transportation Research Board, a recent member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences committees on Personal Transport in China (2000-02), and serves on other advisory committees and Boards of Directors for similar organizations. Recognized as a leading international expert on transportation technology assessment, energy and environmental aspects of transportation, and transportation policy, he consults for international automotive and energy companies, major environmental groups, and several national governments. He has testified numerous times to the U.S. Congress and various government agencies.
Dr. Sperling earned his Ph.D. in Transportation Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley (with minors in Economics and Energy Resources). During 1999-2000, he was a visiting scholar at the OECD (European Conference of Ministers of Transport). He has won numerous awards, and worked as an urban planner in the Peace Corps in Honduras.