Interview with Rob de Jong
Rob de Jong is head of the Air Quality and Mobility Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In the interview he talks about lessons learned from the Corona pandemic, climate-friendly transport and the responsibility of the automotive industry.
Corona is the focus of our lives – environmental issues are taking a back seat. Is the pandemic slowing down the restructuring of the transport sector?
I hope not. The urgency of climate protection has not changed. We only have five to ten years to create the conditions for emission-free mobility. If we do not succeed, the air quality in cities will deteriorate dramatically. And we will miss the climate targets of the Paris Agreement. I think we all agree that this must not happen.
Governments and industry are focusing on crisis management. Won’t climate protection inevitably fall behind?
Not if we do it right. During the pandemic, global transportation has dropped by up to 80 percent. It’s like a forced experiment that shows us the benefits of sustainable mobility. In many places, air quality has improved immensely. Personally, I can observe this by looking out of my office in Nairobi and seeing the surrounding mountains for the first time. Many people are doing their work from their home offices. This saves huge amounts of emissions. Cities are creating new bicycle infrastructure within a very short space of time. We should use this experience to make our transport systems more sustainable. As quickly as possible.
Most climate targets refer to the year 2050. Where does the high level of urgency come from?
One important reason is the long life expectancy of cars. A vehicle that is registered today usually stays on the road for 20 years – first in an industrialized country, then it is typically sold to a developing country. So, cars that are put on the road today will determine emission levels for the next two decades.
What role does e-mobility play in achieving climate goals?
Electric cars are an important pillar for climate protection – but only one-of-three. The others: efficient systems for mass transportation and a new architecture for our cities to promote walking and cycling. We have to plan our cities in such a way that people have short distances to travel and traffic does not arise in the first place. This means, for example, living close to our schools and shopping facilities. Only when these three things come together the climate goals can be achieved.
Since the corona outbreak, mass transportation has suffered particularly severe declines due to the fear of infection.
This is a huge problem, because many public transport companies may not survive the corona period with the reduced amount of revenues. In industrialized countries, governments may be able to compensate for the losses through aid programs. But in developing countries this is not affordable.
Governments around the world want to spend trillions to get the economy moving again. Is this money missing for climate protection?
It doesn’t have to be. A metropolis like London, for example, is every year increasing its investment in road infrastructure - just to keep up with congestion But what would happen if every employee worked from home one day a week? Traffic would drop significantly, and the big cities could save billions in infrastructure investment. This money would then be available for climate friendly mobility.
“Developing countries like Kenya must avoid the mistakes of the industrialised countries and immediately focus on non-motorised transport and e-mobility.”
You live and work in Kenya. What could climate-friendly mobility in Africa look like?
Developing countries such as Kenya must avoid the mistakes of the industrialized countries and immediately focus on non-motorized and e-mobility. This is particularly important because the number of cars is growing rapidly in many countries. In Kenya, for example, the vehicle population doubles every seven-to-eight years. There is no time for a slow, gradual development.
How can people in developing countries be convinced of this – after the West has relied on combustion engines for decades?
I do not think that convincing is the main problem. Many developing countries are aware of the mistakes of the West and do not want to repeat them. Their markets are often very dynamic and adaptable – so change can work. There are other challenges, such as financing a shift to low and no emissions mobility.
Can you give an example?
In many African countries motorcycles are very popular. They are often used as taxis. Most of these machines are old and dirty. Sometimes they need as much fuel as a light duty vehicle and emit as much particulate matter as a truck. Therefore, we are working on the concept of electric two-wheelers, especially tailor made for the needs of the African market. We want to convince the governments to ban petrol two-wheelers and only allow electric motorcycles. The problem: An electric two-wheeler is more expensive to buy, say USD 1,500 versus USD 1,200 for a petrol motorcycle. It pays off within half a year however, because the vehicle does not need fuel, oil or maintenance. But the banks do not grant sufficient credits.
How can better framework conditions be created?
As UNEP, we work with more than 60 countries to establish favorable conditions for clean mobility. For example, we advise governments that want to link the taxation of cars to CO₂ emissions. Some countries have thus improved the CO₂ balance of imported vehicles by 20 percent without losing even one dollar in tax revenue.
“It's great that individual manufacturers are bringing electric vehicles onto the market and setting climate targets. But what we really need is a joint effort by politicians, companies and society.”
What contribution do you expect from car manufacturers like Volkswagen?
I miss close cooperation between companies and governments. It’s great that individual manufacturers are bringing electric vehicles onto the market and setting climate targets. But what we really need is a joint effort by politicians, companies and society to reduce CO₂ emissions in the transport sector to zero. The global vehicle fleet continues to grow – especially in developing countries. We cannot afford this growth to take place with internal combustion engines. Jointly setting regional and global targets for a switch to zero emissions mobility is what we need, followed by concrete action plans.
How do you imagine the cooperation? Should the companies become part of the international climate negotiations?
Maybe not that, but the climate conferences offer a good platform for discussions. Governments congregate there regardless. Why not use this opportunity for a dialogue with companies? My experience is that car manufacturers like clear, long-term goals on which they can base their strategy. For example, they could jointly agree not to manufacture combustion engines after 2030. Not all countries may progress fast enough on their own. We need a climate partnership between governments and car manufacturers.
What can companies do individually?
Car manufacturers should ask themselves whether they really want to open new production facilities with old technology in developing countries. Instead, they should rather invest in clean mobility. We also need a really aggressive, global campaign for e-mobility. It must be understood that many concerns are completely unfounded. Pilot projects with electric vehicles could contribute to this. Unfortunately, there are companies that limit the availability of their electric cars in the interest of profit. They have long waiting lists for electric vehicles, but not for internal combustion engines.
“We must design cities according to the needs of the people and not according to the demands of car traffic. Positive examples are Copenhagen, Amsterdam and increasingly New York.”
You mentioned that city planners also have to re-evaluate. What exactly do you expect?
We must design cities according to the needs of the people and not according to the demands of car traffic. Positive examples are Copenhagen, Amsterdam and increasingly New York. It’s not about banning cars – but designing our mobility around humans rather than individual car use. Developing countries have opportunities to leapfrog to clean solutions. In Nairobi, for example, six million people live there – but there is no proper public transport system. 50-to-60 percent of the inhabitants walk or ride their bicycles, even though there is little infrastructure for this. As a result, traffic accidents are the biggest risk of death for 19-24-year-olds in Nairobi.
Let’s take a look into the future: How will mobility in Amsterdam and Nairobi look like in 2040?
I think the Netherlands will have a very sustainable transport sector. The country does an excellent job, designs cities according to people’s needs, has excellent public transport and is one of the pioneers of e-mobility. Furthermore, Amsterdam is already one of the cycling capitals of the world. Nairobi has the potential for a sustainable transport sector – many cities around the world would welcome 50 percent of their residents walking and cycling. But lack of facilities means that this is rapidly changing, motorization rates are very high. Without good alternatives – good mass transit and walking and cycling facilities – people will increasingly buy and use private cars.
Rob de Jong (52) is head of the Air Quality and Mobility Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The Dutchman is based in Kenya's capital Nairobi.