2050 is far too late. We must decarbonise our roads over the next ten years. It can be done.

Photo by Fabrizio Lonzini (Flickr)
Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 8th September 2020 by Dr Ashok Sinha.

Would you decide the fate of today’s young and future generations on the toss of coin? No, nor would I. But that’s exactly what we are doing when it comes to climate change. The UK’s recently declared target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is undoubtedly a step up in ambition; yet, as the Committee on Climate Change itself said, if every country in the world matched the UK there would still be a 50:50 chance of global heating exceeding the 1.5 degrees C limit set by Paris Climate Change Agreement (emphasis added). Personally, I don’t like those odds – especially when they don’t factor in uncertain but possible feedbacks that would further amplify global heating, such as large scale release of methane trapped in permafrost and the reversal of tropical forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources.

A 30 year timeframe for decarbonisation (including, let’s be clear, dependence on mass sequestration of carbon from the air using technologies that aren’t yet viable, or even invented) may fit with nudge theory: not so remote as to feel irrelevant, not so soon as to feel incredible, and something we can all play a part in achieving. But it’s a comfort blanket nonetheless. We can snuggle up in a warm fug of incrementalism, in denial that climate change is an emergency, demanding emergency action.

We need to improve the odds of civilisation making it through the Anthropocene, and that means decarbonising much, much faster, particularly when it comes to transportation. And also, by the way, that means “circularising” our economies so that we no longer deplete the global commons: if the climate emergency doesn’t get us, then ecosystem collapse probably will.

So far, so doom-laden. But as someone who has worked on environment and sustainability issues for decades I am nothing if not optimistic: I genuinely believe that a transition to a zero carbon, zero waste society will bring better quality of life, not less. There is a great prize before us, but we cannot pretend that anything less than urgent, radical action will do, if we are to grasp it.

What of transport, then? Carbon emissions from this sector have remained stubbornly high, especially from road transport. Why? Part of this is technological: electric vehicles have only become cost-competitive, and we still haven’t solved the electricity-or-hydrogen conundrum when it comes to freight and coach travel. But the greater proportion is surely societal: few people care where their electrons or joules of heat come from, but how we move about can be deeply personal. Interventions to make the car the guest in urban spaces, not king, all too often meet fierce resistance. After all, as the motor industry knows, selling cars is more about selling a particular lifestyle or self-image than function or utility.

Earlier this year, the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) published our Climate Safe Streets report, making the case for why and how London’s roads can be decarbonised by 2030. Our main calls are for: rapid and at-scale reallocation of road space away from motor traffic and towards walking, cycling and public transport; dynamic demand management (and generation of public funds) through London-wide smart road user charging, and a public-private partnership to make shared mobility options (from e-scooters to electric cars and vans) easily and affordably available to all Londoners. We envisage a city where car ownership (but not access to a car) is essentially unnecessary for most people, not only slashing carbon emissions but cleaning up London’s air, decongesting our streets, and making it safer for people to gain the health benefits of walking and cycling. (I’ll hold my hand up on freight: that’s a tougher problem for which LCC doesn’t have a clear view yet – apart from the usual storyline around consolidation.)

But even if you disagree with LCC’s prescriptions, don’t overlook the fact that the world has only 10 years of current carbon emissions left, maybe 15, if we want to increase the odds of staying below 1.5 degrees of global heating to 66% (Carbon Brief, 2018). Still not great odds, but a fighting chance. So, as transport campaigners, professionals, analysts, planners the responsibility is on our shoulders to come up with solutions that will eliminate emissions from road transport. If politics is the art of the possible, then it’s up to us to come up with policy and public engagement solutions that make it possible for the present generation of politicians to sell an optimistic story of revolutionary change to the people. There is no more time to lose.

About the Author

This post was written by Dr Ashok Sinha. Ashok if the Chief Executive of the London Cycling Campaign.