Davos 2023: The vital role of road safety in tackling climate change

“My dream is that the twin vision of zero-emissions mobility and zero-fatalities traffic will come true. We can get there quicker if we understand that both go together – and act on it, now” – Young Tae Kim, Secretary-General, International Transport Forum (ITF)

What is Davos?

A simple Swiss ski resort for 51 weeks of each year, for one week each January, Davos takes on a massive global profile as the World Economic Forum (WEF) comes to town. 

Founded more than 50 years ago, the WEF is an international not-for-profit organisation, focused on bringing the public and private sectors together to address the most pressing global political, social, and economic issues. 

The continuing relevance of Davos is sometimes questioned, but this year the WEF managed to attract 50 Heads of State, 56 Finance Ministers, 19 Central Bank Governors and more than 600 CEOs, including those from JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. 

Why is Davos interested in climate change and road safety?

It’s no surprise to see climate change high on the agenda. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, around 5 million people (250,000 per year) will lose their lives to climate-related health impacts (e.g. from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress). This figure does not even include future victims of floods, wildfires, storms and other natural disasters amplified by global warming. 

Road crashes are even more deadly, wiping out the equivalent of the population of Dallas, Prague or Tangier every year – more than 1.3 million people. In low-income countries, crashes kill more people than tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS.

Is the shift to Electric Vehicles helping?

Electric Vehicles (EVs) are selling well and here to stay – with around 20 million on the world’s roads and EV’s representing around 9% of new vehicles sales in 2021, more than tripling their market share from two years earlier.

Unfortunately, so are fuel guzzling SUVs, which are heavier and consume around 20% more energy than a medium-sized car. In fact, the number of SUVs globally increased by more than 35 million in 2021, driving up annual CO2 emissions by 120 million tonnes.

Why are road safety and emissions reduction inextricably linked?

Transportation produces around 25% of man-made carbon emissions, with 75% of those coming from cars, vans, trucks and buses.

By providing safe and convenient cycling and walking facilities, we can encourage more people to choose sustainable modes of travel over driving. It is estimated that if just 10% of car journeys were replaced by walking or cycling, CO2 emissions could be reduced by around 6 million tonnes per year. 

Increasing urban density is good for decarbonization because it means fewer and shorter trips. However, dense urban roads need to be made safer to protect alternative methods of transport - in the six cities of the ITF’s Safer City Streets network with more than 10,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, 81% of road fatalities between 2010-19 were vulnerable road users like pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists.

Improving road safety can also help by reducing traffic congestion. When there are road incidents, traffic can come to a standstill, which leads to higher emissions. According to the European Environment Agency, congestion can increase CO2 emissions by up to 50 percent, as drivers are forced to constantly accelerate and brake in order to move forward, and idling is commonplace.

A great example of the virtuous cycle between safety and sustainability can be seen in Brazil, where the city of Fortaleza’s "Lively Sidewalk" programme used cheap, standard materials – paint, benches, bollards and planters – to create pedestrian spaces where previously there were not even sidewalks. As a result, walking on the road fell by 92%.

Tackling transport’s carbon dependency must go along with creating safe spaces for those travelling in low- and no-carbon ways.

As Young Tae Kim concludes, “Tackling transport’s carbon dependency must go along with creating safe spaces for those travelling in low- and no-carbon ways. The good news is that there is no trade-off between carbon-free and safe mobility.”

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