A UK plan to hit net zero emissions could tackle economic and social injustices, too

The Extinction Rebellion protest last month. Image: Getty.

Thanks to the youth climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, David Attenborough's BBC One documentary and Greta Thunberg's visit to the UK, climate change is finally riding high on the political agenda. The common ask for politicians and policymakers to tell the truth about climate change, and to reconcile it with serious action seems to be ringing in the ears of our political leaders. Just this weekend, both Labour and the Scottish National Party joined 59 Councils in declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’. No doubt others will follow over the coming weeks.

Achieving a transition that is both green and just will not be easy. Governments have dealt with previous emergencies such as WWII or the Great Depression by stimulating the economy in ways that also worked to increase our environmental impact. Going forward the task will be to find the ways that we can improve people’s quality of life and bring about broadly-shared prosperity whilst also delivering significant and absolute reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) – no easy task.

Whilst the escalation in ambition and focus is very welcome, it has brought to the fore the need for credible plans that are capable of turning the protestors’ demands into practical action. This is the task of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, which launches this week. The purpose of this new Commission is to set out a plan to deliver a rapid and just transition to a green, sustainable and fair economy.

While much of the technology and knowledge required for the successful delivery of a green transition already exists, the practical delivery of it will entail a level of mobilisation and collaboration that is almost unprecedented in our history. Fundamental will be elevating the challenge of decarbonising our economy to a national mission. It will mean an investment programme and industrial strategy – a Green New Deal – that could radically reduce our emissions, deliver broadly-distributed prosperity, and deliver well-paid, high quality jobs. To work, it will need to be led by a Prime Minister and government that is determined to make it the central focus of their administration, and who have the capability and willingness to work alongside town halls, unions, civil society, business and the public at large.


First and foremost amongst these must certainly be the public: even a cursory glance over to France during the recent, and ongoing, gilets jaunes protests shows what can happen when you get on the wrong side of the people on these issues. The UK must not repeat these mistakes; our response needs to ensure a green transition that is fair and just and that has public engagement at the very heart of its decision-making process. It also needs to redress the historic injustices that have left many communities behind following unmanaged industrial transitions in the past and an unbalanced economy that’s still too skewed towards London. Workers and communities that are reliant on carbon intensive industries must be supported through a just transition to a sustainable economy that provides jobs, prosperity and hope. We must also consider the economic and social injustices associated with the issue including the disproportionate impact by, for example, gender, class and ethnicity.

Well-designed, a green transition presents the opportunity to achieve this. Given the scale of the challenge there will be a lot of work to do; this opens up the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs and to giving people a genuine stake in society.

For instance, decarbonisation will require that we mobilise a workforce that’s capable of retrofitting and upgrading hundreds-of-thousands of homes – thereby employing thousands of people and having a material impact on many more's quality of life. Elsewhere, we will need to accelerate the transition to zero carbon transport infrastructure, by investing in electric vehicles and bringing our public transport systems up to 21st century standards. We will also need to explore less tangible ways of reducing people’s impact, for example by correctly market anomalies that make it harder for people to do the right thing.

Business as usual is running on borrowed time, and the window of opportunity for responding has narrowed. The International Panel on Climate Change has warned of serious consequences if global average temperatures rise beyond 1.5C. Given our historical emissions, the UK has a responsibility to demonstrate leadership and show how rapidly decarbonisation can be reconciled with improving people’s quality of life. This will require a revolution in political leadership, and the delivery of a coherent plan that tells the truth and puts people front and centre in how we respond.

Luke Murphy is an associate director at IPPR and head of its new Environmental Justice Commission and

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.