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COP 28: Making rail part of the climate change solution

COP 28: Making rail part of the climate change solution

Rail Partners - COP 28: Making rail part of the climate change solution
07 December 2023
Mark Gaynor, director of operator services

COP28, the United Nations’ climate conference which kicked off in Dubai last week, is the latest opportunity for world leaders to work together to try and tackle long term global warming and its effects. The speed with which climate change is happening, the increasing frequency of droughts, extreme temperatures and severe storms are ringing alarm bells with scientists and policy makers and make it clear that the need for global action to cut greenhouse gas emissions is urgent.

In the UK, the last eight years have been the eight warmest on record and weather patterns are changing. Extreme weather events have increased in frequency and this is evident on the railway.

Whilst I remain hopeful that COP28 will result in decisive global action to cut carbon emissions now, a significant amount of climate change is already baked in because of historic emissions. Here in the UK, that means we have to plan for a changing climate and make our tracks, trains, bridges and embankments more resilient to higher temperatures and more extreme weather.  This isn’t something that can be achieved overnight but will require continued investment in upgrading our infrastructure, drainage and monitoring systems.

However, planning for the impacts of the climate change is not the only way rail fits in to the conversation – harnessing rail for transport is one important way we can start to actively tackle our carbon emissions.

Transport accounts for about one fifth of total global carbon emissions with three quarters of those emissions coming from road transport. In contrast, rail is only responsible for about 1% of total emissions. That’s not surprising – rail is an inherently energy efficient and low carbon transport mode. Given its potential for delivering significant carbon reductions, encouraging passengers and freight customers to switch to rail from more carbon intensive modes should be the bedrock of decarbonisation policy in any country.

The real opportunity for policymakers, particularly in developing countries, is to avoid dependency on cars, planes and trucks in the first place. That means whole-system thinking when devising transport, but also when deciding what to build and where.

Dependence on those higher carbon modes could be eliminated by investing in efficient, easy-to-use public transport systems and ensuring new towns, ports, schools, business parks, leisure facilities and more can be easily accessed by rail. There’s a lot to learn from the policy and planning mistakes many countries, including the UK, have made in the past which have led to high dependency on the private car and HGVs with all of the resulting problems: traffic jams, air pollution, and thousands of people killed or seriously injured each year in road accidents.

Coming out of those critical discussions on climate change at the highest level, we need to see renewed focus, both here and internationally, on developing railways as the backbone of these low carbon transport networks. It will require long term thinking, stable policies, and continued investment. In a tight fiscal environment that can be challenging, but we must work together to make rail an attractive mode of choice and indeed improve our own resilience to climate issues.

Rail Partners members, and more widely across the industry, offer examples of good practice, which we must continue to share and learn from. Transport policy should be looked at holistically and it must be made easier for customers to make less carbon intensive choices – that means providing a service which is dependable, affordable, and easy to use.

There isn’t a simple solution, but the severity of the climate crisis we are facing means we are running out of time to come up with practical ways to cut carbon emissions. Investing in rail is a proven, cost-effective solution for dramatically slashing those emissions, so let’s get on and do it.

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