Reduce car use to meet emissions challenge

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 19th July 2016 by Claire Haigh.

The recent progress report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) makes for interesting reading. The good news is that that greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by an average of 4.5% in the past three years and are now 38% below 1990 levels. However, the less encouraging news is that this reduction in emissions has come almost exclusively from one sector: electricity generation. The CCC warns that without urgent action to strengthen policies, progress will not continue.

Importantly, the report should be a wake-up call for the transport sector. Transport emissions have actually increased. Transport is now the biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the lion’s share of these coming from surface transport which alone accounts for a full quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.

There has been progress in reducing the carbon intensity of cars and vans. In 2013 we actually saw a reduction in emissions from road transport. However, the CCC highlights that more recent fuel sales figures would indicate that these gains have since been eclipsed by more vehicle mileage. Road transport emissions are likely to have increased by around 1% in 2014, as rising demand has outweighed any carbon intensity improvements.

This is the clearest indication, if one should be needed, that technological improvements alone will not deliver the necessary reduction in emissions. As Stern made clear in his seminal review on the economics of climate change there are three key priority areas for a successful carbon reduction strategy: technology, pricing and measures to encourage behaviour change.

Conspicuously lacking has been sufficient effort to use pricing as a policy lever. The CCC recommends that the tax regime should keep pace with technological change, and suggests fiscal measures such as aligning Vehicle Excise Duty to improvements in new vehicle CO2. But there is a much broader point to make here. Fuel duty has been repeatedly frozen in recent years. The direct consequences have been more driving and more congestion. Recent research for Greener Journeys has highlighted the damaging impact of congestion on bus journey times which have been increasing by 10% per decade, with damaging impacts both on bus patronage and the wider economy, costing 5,000 jobs per year.

On behaviour change, the CCC highlights that there is significant potential to reduce emissions through changing behaviour, and that support from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund was positive. But it stresses that such measures need to be properly evaluated and sustained in order to lock-in the benefits.

The big picture is that Government’s commitment to the climate change agenda seems clear. The CCC has identified a gap of about 100 MtCO2e between current plans and the action required by the fifth carbon budget. Government has given its backing to the fifth carbon budget, and it has also committed to produce an ’emissions reduction plan’ later this year to make up the current policy shortfall.

A key part of that plan must involve reducing car use. This would deliver an immediate, cost effective carbon reduction benefit, as well as helping to tackle the growing problem of congestion which is forecast to cost businesses £30 billion by 2030. It would, however, also entail a change in the direction of policy away from giving people more travel choices, to making it more expensive and less convenient to drive. And such measures are unpopular. The motorist lobby is a powerful force.

This motorist’s voice needs to be matched in equal force by the voice of the sustainable transport community. Earlier this month the whole bus sector came together to celebrate Catch the Bus Week. Now in its 4th year, the campaign is really growing in momentum. The real strength of the campaign lies in the creativity unleashed across the country as each area puts its own stamp on the week. From poetry competitions in schools to dance troops on buses and radio show broadcasts live from the top deck, the week provides a great opportunity to encourage car users to give the bus a go.

Catch the Bus Week demonstrates that grass roots campaigns can really make a difference. Such campaigns are important not only for their direct impacts but also the clear message they send to politicians. And there are many other excellent initiatives aimed at encouraging more sustainable travel. Campaigns such as Sustrans’ “Bike Week” and Living Streets’ “National Walking Month” play a vital part in communicating the benefits of less car use.

But much more is needed. Crucially, it needs to become more expensive and less convenient to drive. Without a clear policy commitment to some measure of car restraint, any behaviour change campaign will always be limited in impact. If the current direction of travel is to be reversed the whole sustainable transport community needs to speak loudly and clearly with one voice.

About the Author

This post was written by Claire Haigh. Founder & CEO of Greener Vision & Executive Director of the Transport Knowledge Hub. Claire was previously CEO of Greener Transport Solutions (2021-2022) and CEO of Greener Journeys (2009-2020).