Railway tracks with passenger trains on them at dusk

On Saturday 22 July 2023, the Climate Clock ticked down below six years for the first time, marking that we now have less than six years to dramatically reduce fossil fuel emissions to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. There is a clear urgency for a global shift in behaviour and use of resources, but the scale of change required goes well beyond individual personal choice.

Most of our infrastructure systems are still highly dependent on fossil fuels. Transport, for example, is responsible for about a quarter of all CO2 emissions, and 75% of those are from road transport alone. As it stands, the transport sector is a thirsty one – it consumes 40% of all oil produced in the world.

We are deeply entrenched in an unsustainable paradigm, and the way out comes at a cost. The World Bank estimates that governments globally will face an annual transport infrastructure financing gap of US$244 to US$944 billion through 2030 – which includes a substantial need for railways, as one of the most energy-efficient modes of transport.

Much of the focus, logically, has been on tackling emissions in high-polluting countries – switching to e-mobility and promoting a shift from other modes of transport to rail and other more sustainable methods. However, our efforts have been overlooking the role of sustainable transport infrastructure in low-income countries (LICs) and lower-middle-income countries (LMICs).

If the transport sector in these countries emitted the same amount of CO2 per capita as high-income ones, global transport emissions would more than double. This would mean an additional 8.5 billion tonnes of CO2 being emitted annually, increasing overall global emissions by 16%.

Dr Marcelo Blumenfeld, University of Birmingham

LICs and LMICs are not given equal priority in the discussions regarding climate change because of their relatively low levels of emissions. These countries are home to half of the world’s population but are responsible for only 17% of global transport CO2 emissions. The contribution to transport emissions from LICs is remarkably small: less than 1% of total emissions. In contrast, a sixth of the world’s population lives in high-income countries but is responsible for more than half of the global emissions from transport activities.

But the situation may change drastically and rapidly if nothing is done. Transport demand in LICs and LMICs is expected to grow significantly, and studies have found that a 1% increase in economic development has been linked to a 0.4% growth in CO2 emissions. Decoupling growth from carbon emissions in LICs and LMICs is therefore a matter of global significance. If the transport sector in these countries emitted the same amount of CO2 per capita as high-income ones, global transport emissions would more than double. This would mean an additional 8.5 billion tonnes of CO2 being emitted annually, increasing overall global emissions by 16%.

It is clear that LICs and LMICs have a critical importance to the global efforts to tackle climate change because their potential emissions can be easily avoided if the development of their transport infrastructure prioritises sustainable modes and practices. These carbon savings will have global impacts. If the modal share of rail in LICs and LMICs was increased to 8% with new and improved railway networks, almost 2 billion tonnes of CO2 would be avoided by 2050.

But LICs and LMICs are not able to fund all this change alone – and will need support, especially considering the global benefits their actions could have.

The Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), together with Roland Berger, UIC, and Alstom, have published a whitepaper that shows the importance of investment in rail infrastructure in LICs and LMICs and highlights the need for collaborative efforts in achieving it.

The whitepaper set out seven actions to make greener rail transport in these countries a reality:

  • High-Income Countries Grant Funding: Acknowledge the importance of decoupling transport emissions growth, providing substantial funding for rail projects through grants as part of the annual $100 billion climate finance commitment.
  • Paris Agreement Support: Governments must encourage rail projects to be funded under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, generating carbon credits for emission reductions.
  • IFI-led transformation: International Financial Institutions should update cost-benefit analysis methods for rail projects, prioritize low-carbon modes, and increase funding allocated to rail.
  • Government Policies: LICs and LMICs should lead the implementation of policies to spur private investment in rail, align to standardized technical standards, and incentivize modal shift.
  • International Finance Sector Support: The sector should work to make financing rail projects more attractive to the private sector and assist LICs and LMICs in building institutional and technical capacity.
  • Collaboration with Rail Industry: Policymakers in LICs and LMICs collaborate with the rail industry to structure projects, leveraging private sector expertise, and maximizing broader economic benefits.
  • Technological Advancements: The rail industry should continue leveraging digitalization and advances in rail technologies to improve project attractiveness and reduce costs.

The world needs immediate action to tackle climate change. Beyond the current efforts to reduce emissions in highly polluting countries, global action needs to prioritise the important role of avoiding emissions from the economic growth of LICs and LMICs. To do so, stakeholders such as the international finance sector, governments, the railway industry, and the international community must work together to facilitate investments and promote better practices to bridge the current infrastructure gap and change the path to one in tune with the Sustainable Development Goals, creating a fairer and healthier planet for us all.