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

This is fine. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.