Transport decarbonisation – metal-heads, petrol-heads and the pandemic

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 22nd March 2021 by Glenn Lyons.

I’m a metal-head.

I understand it can be good to start an article like that – to connect with your base. Especially if my fellow metal-heads felt I might be looking to encroach on their/our beloved music (asking them to tone and turn it down, or worse still subjecting them to Radio 1).

In fact, I hold no hope of (m)any metal-heads reading this. However, the predicament for Government parallels this, once you move from metal-head to petrol-head and to the topic of decarbonising transport. There are tens of millions of people out there in the UK for whom cars are central to their lives – they (think they) need them and in some cases love them (and love them bigger).

I’m not a petrol-head, but I do have a VW Diesel Polo BlueMotion parked on the drive of my village home. It’s been a companion over the years on my M4 commute in the ‘olden days’. Before writing this, I went for a long run (running free for those who know their Iron Maiden). You get a different perspective. I cursed the cars I passed parked (fully!) on the pavement, I cursed the noisy, fume-belching beasts that streamed past me on the road (as guitar riffs sang from my headphones). I’m a car driver but one who wants system change.

I’ve long had the view that people are resistant to change but adaptable to change when it confronts them – and they can even support change if they can see the benefits and feel the change is fair. But they need help to change – alternatives within their reach and the right incentives to consider and take such alternatives. In the case of decarbonisation, change comes in two forms: change in the vehicles we will use and change in behaviour. The political path for the first is complicated (across modes of transport), requiring multiple stakeholders to align in bringing about an energy transition away from the internal combustion engine. The political path for the second is treacherous – limiting and indeed reducing the quantum of motorised mobility. And both paths will need to be trodden if we are to make progress against the very loudly ticking clock that is climate change.

It goes without saying, but needs saying nonetheless – we have a huge challenge ahead with a messy, multifaceted system transition needing to occur at pace if we are to avoid breaking the law come 2050 (if not before, given the interim carbon budgets).

Then along came the pandemic. It has changed the system (irrevocably). It has changed behaviours – people have shown they can adapt to changed circumstances. However, it has caused, and will continue to cause, great social and economic harm. So will COVID-19 prove to be a friend or foe to decarbonising transport?

I had the privilege of asking a stellar panel this question, in front of an audience of 250 people when I chaired the eighth PTRC Fireside Chat on 25 February. You can watch the event (and any of the other Fireside Chats in the series) on YouTube. You can also download a full write-up of the event. Our line-up was as follows: Professor Rachel Aldred (University of Westminster), Dr Bob Moran (Department for Transport), Professor Jillian Anable (University of Leeds), Andrew Curry (School of International Futures), Claire Haigh (Greener Transport Solutions) and Brendan Rooney (Transport Scotland).

The important messages I took from the event were as follows:

• A car-led recovery from the pandemic at any cost is not tenable – to achieve the level of decarbonisation needed requires a reining in of car use supported by accompanying targets.
• A green recovery meanwhile makes good environmental sense and good economic sense.
• There are exciting prospects of new dynamics and norms of working but it is not yet clear how these will play out – and how they do may be as much to do with power and control as with working arrangements.
• Public transport, whose difficulties been exacerbated by the pandemic, needs rethinking – the operating model of fare-box reliance is broken.
• The pandemic and the associated transport measures introduced (and related communication experimented with) have helped open up an important, albeit fractious, conversation about what our streets should be for.
• It is reasonable to assume there will be no bounce-back for (international) aviation from the pandemic, reinforced by a newfound experience of business interaction through the screen rather than via time- and resource-hungry travel.
• Technology fix or behaviour change is a false dichotomy which creates polarisation rather than collaboration – and behaviour change concerns not only transport system users but government, industry, lobbyists – systemic behaviour change.
• There is a need to bring the post-pandemic agenda about climate change back to wellbeing and a ‘my world’ conversation that helps people identify real benefits for themselves and their families.
• Clear scientific evidence must be provided to support, and be trusted by, politicians in the glare of an unforgiving media; and news on the climate crisis and progress with tackling it must be communicated regularly to the wider public, as has been the case for the pandemic.
• Communication is much more constructive when the focus is on trade-offs and the distribution of winners and losers, rather than talking only about specific policy instruments.
• “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could” – this may well apply to addressing climate change and an exciting decade lies ahead, buoyed by the prospect of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan being published this Spring.

In sum, a messy state of flux. I found myself reflecting upon how much has changed in the last three years. Greta Thunberg only appeared on Twitter in June 2018 – a key agent of change in public awareness and concern. A year later, in June 2019, the bold commitment to the UK having a net zero emissions economy by 2050 was enshrined in law. Amidst the pandemic, at the end of 2020 a ten-point-plan was published by Government for a Green Industrial Revolution, including bringing forward the ban on new petrol and diesel cars to 2030. In 2021 we will see the Transport Decarbonisation Plan published. While intention and commitment must turn with ever more intensity to action, change is happening. Notwithstanding the black cloud of the pandemic, its silver lining may prove to be the catalyst for behaviour change we could otherwise only have dreamed of. I have been encouraged by the thought that we are at the bottom of multiple s-curves of change and may yet look back with pleasant surprise at how we ascended them through the 2020s.

It’s not an easy journey ahead but I hope that our highway to hell is able to become a stairway to heaven (even though the latter feels tame, by comparison, to my metal heart).

About the Author

This post was written by Glenn Lyons. Mott MacDonald Professor of Future Mobility, UWE Bristol