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Transport / Mass transit

To combat climate change, we need radical changes in the way we commute

This year the average concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has hit its highest level in 800,000 years. Yet without urgent efforts to reduce emissions, concentrations, and the damage caused by climate change, this concentration will continue to grow.

One of the sectors where CO2 emissions continue to rise is transport. Recent analysis of the carbon budget suggests that petrol and diesel car sales will have to end by 2030 in order to counter this trend.

We all understand the implications of driving, in terms of CO2 and other emissions, and many of us are acting to do something to reduce the extent of our impacts. So why is this not translating into a reduction in emissions?

The reasons are many, varied, and complex:

  • The move to heavier, and therefore less fuel efficient cars, as the ‘high-end’ car market becomes increasingly dominant;

  • There may be implications of a shift away from diesel to petrol engines as consumers respond to air quality issues. Diesel combustion emits more material that affects air quality, while petrol emits higher levels of CO2;

  • We continue to invest heavily in roads, while neglecting other modes of transport, stimulating more car travel. And this doesn’t even include air travel – another growth area for carbon emissions.

Travel patterns are changing. On the motorway network there is significant traffic growth. And the baby boomers who are entering retirement now have higher car ownership levels than previous cohorts and drive more.

But in major cities, traffic levels have reduced and more people reach the centre by public transport. Young people are learning to drive later and are making fewer trips by car. Young men (17-29 years) are making 44 per cent fewer trips, and young women 26 per cent fewer trips, by car than they were in 1992-94.

These trends suggest that, through our continued investment in a huge roads programme, we are providing for travel demand that future generations may not generate. Worse, we risk locking in the most damaging aspects of travel demand by continually developing the road network.


Some of the problems associated with investing in roads were spelled out recently in a report published by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, based on research by Sustrans, UWE and Nef. The report considers specifically whether there may be alternatives to the £1.4bn proposal for a new stretch of M4 around Cardiff and Newport. It discusses the extent to which the proposal would exacerbate societal and environmental challenges, including the impacts that run counter to the needs of future generations.

The fact that emissions from transport in Wales have only decreased by 3 per cent since 1990 emphasises the need to think differently about transport provision. Apart from anything else, the development is unlikely to be effective in alleviating congestion. Much better options are offered, including improved provision for walking and cycling.

Lifestyle changes key to the decarbonisation of the transport system

A Decarbonising Transport in Wales report, published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, argues that “it is only by changing its relationship with the automobile that Wales can hope to meet its environmental targets”. The report acknowledges that transport in Wales is dominated by roads, and that most emissions emanate from the private car.

But the current reliance on technical solutions, primarily electrification of the private vehicle fleet, will not do enough to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough. The report considers options for reducing car use and mitigating its negative effects, including greater application of 20mph speed limits, a review of parking policy and consideration of ways of increasing the costs of car use to bring it closer in line with the costs of public transport. The report also considers how travel mode choice can be influenced by “changing the relationship with the car, stripping away its role as a status symbol”, possibly by moving away from private ownership to a pay per use model. It also suggests that electric vehicles are only an adequate solution in some settings, such as rural areas.

Similarly, another recent paper, which modelled pathways to lower carbon emissions in Scotland, argues that energy consumption and pollutant emissions from transport are greatly influenced by lifestyle choices and socio-cultural factors. Policies to change travel demand patterns can be implemented sooner, and will impact more significantly, to achieve emissions reduction.

Both of the papers are unequivocal about the role that walking and cycling needs to play in achieving decarbonisation of the transport system. If the UK is to make its contribution to worldwide efforts to stave off the very worst effects of climate change, we need to act fast on UK transport policy, and to urgently rebalance transport investment patterns. We need to prioritise demand management and behaviour change measures above our reliance on technological fixes, and to cease investment in transport solutions that serve an historic and damaging paradigm.

Dr Andy Cope is director of insight at transport campaign group Sustrans.
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