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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.