We have built our modern economy and lifestyles on the energy of fossil fuels. We know we must cease their use if dangerous climate change is to be avoided. Transport is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. To decarbonise, we need new technology, principally electric propulsion for surface transport. We may also need changes in our travel behaviour.
A major shift in vehicle technology is underway, electric propulsion replacing the internal combustion engine. This is driven by the requirement of the UK government that conventional cars and vans should not be sold beyond 2030. The auto industry is responding with new models of battery electric vehicles, which customers are keen to purchase. Replacement of the internal combustion engine in heavier vehicles and on the railways will take longer but should be feasible. Aviation is a much are difficult sector to decarbonise, although serious efforts are underway.
The question is to what extent we can rely on technology to decarbonise transport fast enough to comply with the government’s announced trajectory to Net Zero by 2050, which requires a 78% reduction by 2035, compared with 1990. In its Transport Decarbonisation Plan, published last year, the Department for Transport took an optimistic view of the prospects for technological innovation, so minimising the need for behaviour change.
Other analysts, including the Climate Change Committee, the government’s official advisor, are less bullish about technology, so seeing a need for changes to travel behaviour. One generally agreed approach is to promote active travel – walking and cycling. But this is less useful than it may seem.
Consider Copenhagen, a city famous for cycling, with almost 30% of trips by bike. But car use is only slightly less than in London. The other big difference is that public transport use in the Danish capital is half that in London. This shows that we can get people off the buses onto bikes, which are cheaper, healthier, better environmentally, and no slower in congested traffic. But it is harder to get people out of their cars, even in a small, flat city with excellent cycling infrastructure and a strong cycling culture – virtually all those drivers in Copenhagen have experience of cycling.
In practice, behaviour change that reduces car use is, regrettably, difficult to achieve, as I explain in my new book. The car’s great attraction is that it provides convenient door-to-door travel over short-to-medium distances, where there is not too much traffic congestion and space is available to park at both ends of the journey. These conditions may not be met in city centres, which is where public transport is both most economical to provide and most useful as an alternative to the car. Beyond city centres, the car will remain attractive as the means to gain access to people and places, opportunities and choices, to which we have become habituated in our modern lifestyles.
The experience of the pandemic showed that we could manage to travel much less, by working from home where feasible, shopping online, and staycations in Britain rather than holidays abroad. The impetus was the threat to our health and government regulation during the peaks of virus incidence. But we have largely reverted to previous travel behaviour as the pandemic has receded, although the extent of home working in the long run remains to be seen. The main impact of the pandemic on travel has been on public transport, with car use returning to normal quite quickly once travel restrictions were lifted. So we have little evidence from the pandemic experience of behaviour change that would help us respond to the climate emergency, where the contribution of individual behaviour change seems miniscule.
To make a useful change to travel behaviour, a change in relative prices would be needed, making car travel more expensive in relation to other modes. But this would be unpopular as well as problematic in respect of equity, given the reliance of many on low incomes for the car to get to work and for other essential trips.
The government’s objectives in its Transport Decarbonisation Plan have been generally welcomed. There now needs to be an informed debate on how to achieve the rapid reduction in carbon emissions required. What reliance can be placed on technology? What behaviour change is feasible and how to achieve this?
My new book sets out the issues https://londonpublishingpartnership.co.uk/good-to-go/
Also available from Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Good-Go-Decarbonising-Pandemic-Perspectives/dp/1913019616/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1656407020&sr=1-7
David Metz is an honorary professor at the UCL Centre for Transport Studies.