Wednesday 4 October 2023

Getting to Net-Zero: a shift to rail as part of the solution

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In its recent publication “Net Zero – A Global Pathway to Keep the 1.5°C Goal in Reach”, the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that a global pathway is within reach to maintain the 1.5°C target.

Working in close partnership with the International Energy Agency, UIC contributes to and co-develops publications, such as Future of Rail or some Railway Handbooks, providing an overview of the rail sector as an energy consumer within the transport sector. UIC advocates for modal shift to rail as a key climate solution and values the recently published “Net Zero – A Global Pathway to Keep the 1.5°C Goal in Reach” report, which calls for the adoption of consumer-driven measures, such as the increased use of public transport and rail.

Although technical options to reduce energy intensity are maximised in the NZE Scenario, the pace of turnover of the global stock of energy-related assets imposes constraints on what can be achieved by 2030. Consequently, behavioural changes – actions that consumers can take to reduce energy consumption – are needed to accelerate improvements in energy intensity. In the transport sector, they include more public transport and reduced car use in cities, eco-driving on highways and switching from planes to trains or videoconferencing.”

But beyond behavioural change, there is a clear need for a whole society approach. Governments, business, industry and financing institutions must take action through coordinated efforts to prioritise low-carbon solutions in the near future. In recent years, governments have taken brave steps to cap prices for rail travel and incentivise the use of this mode in many countries, including Austria, Germany and Spain, addressing the high cost of train travel. Nevertheless, further action is needed to drive change in the pace and scale required. This includes:

  • Establishing rail as the backbone of sustainable transport, and including it in long-term policy planning, including the next cycle of Nationally Determined Contributions, with mitigation potential from rail projects enhancing international cooperation and attracting investment.
  • Setting up fair market competition practices and levelling the playing field across the different modes of transport. Rail has a lower share of negative externalities, whilst paying for almost all of them, which increases operational costs and, in turn, negatively impacts demand for rail. A polluter-pay principle should be applied, whereby transport modes pay according to their level of GHG emissions, as suggested by the IEA report: “new financial incentives need to be introduced such as congestion charges in cities and levies on frequent flyers”.
  • Ensuring finance mechanisms that support the development and maintenance of rail infrastructure and operations, so that it can continue to be a high-volume, low-carbon mode of transport. OECD data shows that in recent years, rail infrastructure investment has experienced a steady decline in favour of road transport in numerous countries. This trend needs to be reversed and finance needs to flow into realising rail’s potential to decarbonise transport in the next 30 years.

These are the key messages from the More Trains campaign, coordinated by UIC, which aims to raise the visibility of the rail sector in climate dialogues and negotiations and which will be brought to COP28 in Dubai this year.

For further information, please contact Joo Ha at

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