Future of Transport: Decarbonising a complex system

3 October 2023


Future of Transport: Decarbonising a complex system

Reported by Hayoung Choi, CUSPE President

Professor Sarah Sharples, Chief Scientific Adviser in the Department for Transport and a Professor at the University of Nottingham, discussed the reasons why the transport sector requires much attention. Arguing that the fast-changing transport sector creates new opportunities such as encouraging the development of new technologies and creating jobs, Professor Sharples discussed that transport, at the same time, is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions, which means it is one of the biggest hurdles to achieving net zero emissions.

On 26 September 2023, Professor Sarah Sharples delivered the CSaP Annual Cleevely Lecture. Professor Sharples presented five key challenges of improvement in the transport network, with a humanitarian perspective and suggested potential solutions.

Digitalising the system

Professor Sharples emphasised the fact that the digital platforms for each means of transportation – bus, train, aeroplane – are disconnected. In order to improve the transport network, Professor Sharples then argued that digital platforms need to be integrated for tracking the position, navigating the voyager, and informing the timing.

Ironies of automation

Drawing attention to automation in transportation and its ironies, Professor Sharples discussed that automation and the use of Artificial Intelligence seem to promise a faster and more convenient operation of transportation. Arguing that automation often results in the loss of human understanding of machines, which are more difficult to visualise and less intuitive to comprehend, Professor Sharples stresses the significance of finding the balance of automation.

Energy enigma

Professor Sharples then started talking about how the transport sector should proceed with the goal of decarbonization. She argued that the energy use for transport is linked with the public health problem, international trade, and energy demands of other sectors. Emphasising that a whole-system approach is required, Professor Sharples stated that the collaborative effort of government, industry, and academia should be encouraged to produce relevant knowledge so that government can make evidence-based decisions. She also discussed that technologies and policies should be implemented hand in hand, such as incentivizing working at home and the use of hydrogen fuel.

Making transport safe

Professor Sharples continued her speech by arguing that technologies can make transportation safer in various ways, but cannot provide hundred per cent security due to the fuzzy field with complex relationships. Discussing the importance of visualising health hazards linked with transportation, Professor Sharples suggested that visualising the invisible hazards is one way to duly inform people to help them make better transport decisions.

Diverse perspectives

Last but not least, Professor Sharples argued that different experiences of technologies lead to different attitudes towards technologies and she further advocated bringing along the diverse perspectives of people as the transport system advances.

During the discussion after the speech, demand management was addressed as an important factor, along with decarbonisation. Professor Sharples offered an optimistic view that subsequent innovations can cut down the costs of environmentally friendly choices. She also stated that government subsidies should be adequately exploited to propel the transport sector towards a more environmentally friendly path.

Additionally, Professor Sharples highlighted the importance of having evidence-based decisions when policy discussions can often be influenced by polarised viewpoints. She further stated that it means that scientists and engineers should produce more knowledge that can be translated into the policy sector.

Emphasising that she believes in the brilliance of humanity, Professor Sharples stated that if government, industry, and academia collaborate, complex, multifactorial challenges will not block the transport sector heading towards decarbonization.

Image by Stijn - Unsplash