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We Need to Travel Less

When it comes to transport, there has been much debate but little real action over issues of climate change. If climate change is to be successfully addressed then transport needs to be fully involved. Many countries are now experiencing mass motorization for the first time, with the associated costs, including the rapid increases in carbon emissions. So transport’s contribution to climate change is likely to increase in both relative and absolute terms. The implications for inequality in transport globally have not featured in the debates.

Poor quality environment means spending wasted time in heavy congestion, as here on the A34 in Oxfordshire.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) report (2016) has urged immediate and transformative action, and it has recognized the importance of valuing carbon and the key role that low carbon transport can and should play in achieving mitigation targets. Economic policy is seen as the key to change, and this should cover pricing (carbon markets, carbon taxes, and fossil fuel subsidy reform), as well as strong regulation, standards and enforcement. A central element here is the commitment of the G7 to end most fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, estimated by the IMF to amount to $5.3 trillion in 2015 (Coady et al., 2015). There is a clear case for decoupling carbon and energy use in transport from growth in the economy as a whole, but this is only happening in a limited number of countries and on a relative scale rather than in absolute terms (Loo and Banister, 2016). This means that transport carbon and energy use is increasing, but at a lower rate than that of the global economy. This is good (relative decoupling), but not as good as when the global economy grows and transport carbon and energy use declines (absolute decoupling).

The UNFCCC report (2016, p. 4) comments on the sustainable development goals and the role that they can play in achieving transformational change in transport:

In this regard, low carbon transportation should be the key driver of inclusion and equality, enable individual mobility, and improve access to job opportunities and key services such as education and health. Ultimately mitigation actions in the transport sector must ensure effective delivery of essential services necessary for society’s wellbeing and economic development.

It remains to be seen whether much stronger statements on transport will result in substantial reductions in the carbon intensity of mobility, and how experimental alternatives can be scaled up. The UNFCCC is clear about the need for a common global framework and goals, a low carbon transport road map, and the implementation of short-term effective actions, all of which would bring together the major players from government, business, and other stakeholders.

The globalization of the economy and the development of long supply chains for freight, together with the greater international movement of people for business, education, tourism and visiting friends and relatives have all resulted in huge increases in mobility and the use of carbon-based energy. These global trends are not likely to change, as the aspirations and expectations of the new global middles classes expand, and as the global economy becomes ever more connected.

There has been substantial investment in new technologies designed to improve efficiency, with the latest interest in electric and autonomous vehicles. But as with so many innovations, they take much longer than expected to provide the scale and impact necessary to have a real effect. Innovation does not replace the existing technology, and so the old and the new will act together to enhance the size of the mobility market. This is not good news. All motorized transport requires energy, and even electric vehicles are often powered by electricity generated from fossil fuels (e.g. coal, gas and oil). Greater mobility (at least over the next 30 years) means that there will be increasing requirements for more energy in transport and this will result in increased CO2 emissions. By 2050, if global targets on CO2 emissions are to be met to keep within the 2oC ceiling on temperature increases (UNFCCC, 2016), it is likely that transport will be responsible for between 50 and 60 per cent of all emissions,3 even if strong action is taken now to decarbonize all forms of transport, including air and sea. It is estimated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that transport emissions will double over the next 30 years to about 14 MtCO2eq (or even as high as 18 MtCO2eq by 2050) (IEA, 2009).

The only realistic option would be to look at the means to reduce levels of mobility, at least in the richer countries, through substitution of travel by electronic communications, through multi-tasking on activities, through the increased use of public transport, and through shorter trips by walking and cycling. This requires new levels of coordination between all agencies and strong citizen support for change. More drastically, the options might have to include limits on international travel by air and a restructuring of the production of goods and services, so that they would have a substantial local content. Such actions would be in addition to the decarbonization of the energy sources used in transport. It must be remembered that there are still substantial amounts of carbon embedded in the construction of transport infrastructure and in the operation of the system. For example, it has been estimated with respect to the new UK High Speed rail link between London and the West Midlands (HS2 – Phase 1 is 221 km) that the carbon embedded in the construction of the new railway will add 5.59 MtCO2eq to the ‘costs’ of construction, and that this is the ‘penalty’ incurred prior to the opening of the route. It will not be ‘repaid’ for 120 years (Cornet et al., 2018).

We have to do much more with less. For many, this future might seem rather bleak, but increasingly this is the new reality. Not enough is being done globally to address the effects of climate change, and transport is a major sector that has seen little progress, as growth in travel has outweighed the efficiency gains, and it is seen as an ‘expensive’ and ‘difficult’ sector in which to intervene. Perhaps it is through the arguments related to inequality in access to mobility that the debate should be focused, with priority being given to improving access for the less well-off rather than the well-off.