1. Introduction

Planetary emergencies such as climate change require bold and rapid action. The scale of the challenge “demands a step change in both the breadth and scale of ambition” (UK Department of Transport, 2020[1]). An important limitation for scaling up the ambition is that most climate action today focuses on incremental change in the systems that underpin our modern economies and societies. In other words, climate action all too often aims at optimising individual components within these systems rather than transforming the systems themselves, which are unsustainable by design.

A focus on optimising parts leads to net-zero pathways and climate strategies that place an overriding focus on technological change to drive the transition; assigning a marginal role to reducing demand through transforming systems, and leading to incremental, rather than transformational, change (see Box 1.1). Strategies in the transport sector are good examples of this, as most strategies to reach net-zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions prioritise policies that will improve vehicle performance in car-dependent systems. The expectation is that technological change (mostly at the level of the vehicle) will offset emissions related to large and growing demand for mobility.

Following such an incremental approach to designing pathways to net-zero (and the strategies to implement them), entails high risks for reaching net-zero targets on time, and thus the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal. It also leaves huge untapped potential for addressing other pressing challenges (e.g. health, equity, etc.). Physical constraints on how quickly durable assets (including cars) can be replaced in high-demand systems (e.g. car-dependent transport systems), along with uncertainties about the capacity to scale up several technologies in the future (e.g. hydrogen, or advance biofuels, as well as for carbon dioxide removal) (Buckle et al., 2020[2]) may well mean that climate targets are missed. Research carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that rapid growth in energy and materials demand – including as a result of transport systems through increased vehicle use – reduces the chances of achieving stringent mitigation targets (IPCC, 2018[3]). In addition, such an approach may exacerbate other environmental and social challenges (e.g. creating large impacts from mining for batteries and increasingly reducing travel options).

A strong focus of climate action therefore needs to be on redesigning systems so that – in their functioning – they require less energy and materials, and produce less emissions1 while improving wider well-being goals (Buckle et al., 2020[2]; OECD, 2021[4]). In other words, climate action, and pathways towards net-zero, should aim for transformational change in the systems themselves (see Box 1.1). While also requiring significant technological innovation, development and deployment, this transformative approach to achieving net-zero systems can help countries to achieve more stringent mitigation action in the short term while also reducing the risks and trade-offs implicit in an approach dominated by supply-side technological developments. By embedding equity and other well-being considerations (e.g. health) in the efforts to redesign systems, transformational pathways can make politically difficult policies (e.g. carbon pricing due to equity concerns) more feasible (Buckle et al., 2020[2]), while ensuring that both climate and wider well-being outcomes (e.g. Sustainable Development Goals) are delivered by design.

Unfortunately, in addition to focusing on parts, using the wrong proxies for progress has often led to leaving unquestioned the desirability of high (and growing) demand systems. Moreover, the underpinning demand-side changes involved in transformational approaches, including in behaviour, are often not well represented in dominant approaches to energy modelling, which tend to further reinforce the idea that a growing demand (be it of mobility or consumption more broadly) is inevitable and exogenous from the systems’ design. As this report highlights, there are also measurement biases that reinforce approaches that are over-optimistic concerning what technological change can achieve and at what pace. This may have led to an under appreciation of the potential and benefits of so-called low-demand scenarios (Grubler et al., 2018[5]).

This report builds on previous work (see Box 1.2) and applies the OECD Well-being Lens2, a process to support countries in triggering transformational climate action, to the surface passenger transport sector (excluding water transport). The objective is to identify policies for the transport sector that can ultimately contribute to transformational pathways leading to net-zero societies by design.

The report focuses on urban settings (accounting for approximately 40% of total passenger transport emissions),3 and emphasises the need to include whole cities and their commuting zones4 in policy considerations. Policies related to inter-city and international travel, as well as the relationship between transport solutions for interconnected urban and rural areas, are beyond the scope of this report. The reduction of car dependencies in urban areas discussed in this report, however, is fundamental to promoting sustainable modes for inter-city travel, and numerous potential synergies can be made between policies and infrastructure for urban and non-urban trips.5 The improvement of metropolitan governance and strategic planning at the functional urban area scale (see Chapter 4), and the use of concepts such as Place Making and Complete Streets in rural territories are also key and discussed throughout the report.

This report is structured as follows. Chapter 2 defines the outcomes that a sustainable system should achieve, and the importance for policy makers to shift from a mobility-oriented to an accessibility-oriented perspective to transition to “sustainable-by-design” systems. It also provides a brief explanation of the transport and urban system dynamics leading to car dependency and high emissions, and gives a summary of the policy changes needed to reverse such dynamics. Chapters 3-5 describe these dynamics in greater detail and, based on examples from international practices, illustrate how different policy tools can contribute to changing these dynamics. Chapter 6 discusses the role of improved vehicle technology and pricing mechanisms in transformative climate strategies. Chapter 7 reviews the measures implemented by governments and the rapid changes that resulted from those measures as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. Chapter 8 concludes.


[9] Aguilar Jaber, A. et al. (2020), “Long-term low emissions development strategies: Cross-country experience”, OECD Environment Working Papers, No. 160, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/1c1d8005-en.

[2] Buckle, S. et al. (2020), “Addressing the COVID-19 and climate crises: Potential economic recovery pathways and their implications for climate change mitigation, NDCs and broader socio-economic goals”, OECD/IEA Climate Change Expert Group Papers, No. 2020/04, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/50abd39c-en.

[5] Grubler, A. et al. (2018), “A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies”, Nature Energy, Vol. 3/6, pp. 515-527, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-018-0172-6.

[7] Hynes, W., M. Lees and J. Müller (eds.) (2020), Systemic Thinking for Policy Making: The Potential of Systems Analysis for Addressing Global Policy Challenges in the 21st Century, New Approaches to Economic Challenges, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/879c4f7a-en.

[3] IPCC (2018), Global Warming of 1.5°C, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15 (accessed on 16 May 2021).

[4] OECD (2021), “Circular economy – waste and materials”, in Environment at a Glance Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/f5670a8d-en.

[10] OECD (2020), Accelerating Climate Action in Israel: Refocusing Mitigation Policies for the Electricity, Residential and Transport Sectors, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/fb32aabd-en.

[8] OECD (2019), Accelerating Climate Action: Refocusing Policies through a Well-being Lens, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/2f4c8c9a-en.

[12] Purba, A. et al. (2017), “A current review of high speed railways experiences in Asia and Europe”, https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5011558.

[6] Systems Innovation (2021), Mobility Systems Innovation, Systems Innovation, https://www.systemsinnovation.io/post/mobility-systems-innovation (accessed on 13 August 2021).

[1] UK Department of Transport (2020), Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, UK Department of Transport, London, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/932122/decarbonising-transport-setting-the-challenge.pdf.

[11] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2017), World Urbanization Prospects, United Nations, New York, NY, https://population.un.org/wup (accessed on 20 July 2021).


← 1. Also reducing reliance on CO2 removal technologies. As discussed in Buckle et al (2020[2]), “relying on carbon dioxide removal to offset any overshoot in CO2 emissions is at best a risky strategy, as these technologies are currently not commercially available at scale, may involve difficult trade-offs with other goals and may not be publicly acceptable”.

← 2. By building on systems thinking, the Well-Being Lens allows policy makers to identify policies with the potential to reverse key system dynamics behind high emissions and other undesirable outcomes (e.g. growing inequality, poor health, etc.).

← 3. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that 55% of the population lived in urban settings in 2017, and that two-thirds will live in urban settings by 2050 (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017[11]).

← 4. According to the EU-OECD definition of functional urban areas, cities incorporate an urban centre, defined as “a set of contiguous, high-density (1 500 residents per square kilometre) grid cells with a population of 50 000 in the contiguous cells”, and any contiguous local unit (e.g. municipality, district) that has at least 50% of its population inside the identified urban centre. This scale is thus much larger than inner cities, and includes suburban areas. A city’s commuting zone includes “a set of contiguous local units that have at least 15% of their employed residents working in the city.” Together, a city and its commuting area are defined as a functional urban area.

← 5. For example, (Purba et al., 2017[12])find that having high population density near rail stations and good public transport connectivity to the rail station are key to the success of high-speed rail services in Europe and Asia.

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