Skip to content
Site search
bicycles in a city
Natural Environment

Changing how we travel – part 1: The car can no longer be king

Policymakers across the world are looking at means of pandemic-proofing large urban centres in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. One oft-cited solution could be a reallocation of funds earmarked for mass transit systems into active travel infrastructure.

London Cycling Campaign
26 May 2020

In May 2019, the UK Parliament declared an environment and climate emergency. A few months later, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply optimistic about the potential of technology to make the world a better place17.” And in his launch speech of the COP26 conference to be held in Glasgow in November 2020[1], he focused very heavily on technological change – and specifically electric vehicles – as the answer to the challenges we face.

This being the case, why do we worry? Can’t we just carry on more or less as we are, and leave the scientists and innovators to harness technology to reduce our carbon footprint? Aren’t electric vehicles and, later on, autonomous vehicles the answer?

The simple, factual answer is ‘No’.

The belief that advancing technology will save us from having to make difficult decisions is comforting, and thus tempting. It is, however, a misplaced faith. In the specific case of road transport, transitioning from a fossil-fuelled to a clean-fuelled fleet is essential, but it’s not nearly sufficient. Similarly, while the prospect of driverless vehicles may be fascinating, it offers little new in terms of environmental performance and is, in any case, far too distant to meet the demands of the climate emergency.

The belief that advancing technology will save us from having to make difficult decisions is comforting, and thus tempting. It is, however, a misplaced faith.

If Climate Safe targets are to be met, overall traffic levels must reduce substantially. The precise scale of the reduction needed is yet to be clarified by the Committee on Climate Change, a non-departmental public body that advises the government. However, provisional work has found that even if all new cars were Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEVs) by 2035 (80% battery electric, 20% plug-in hybrids), a 58% reduction in car mileage between 2016 and 2035 would be needed to bring car carbon dioxide emissions in line with a ‘well below 2°C’ pathway[2]

There are, in any case, serious doubts about how quickly the transformation of the UK’s existing vehicle fleet to cleaner fuels can be achieved. To coincide with the Prime Minister’s COP26 launch speech, the government announced that it plans to bring forward an end to the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040 to 2035 (or earlier if a faster transition is feasible), subject to consultation. But the justifiable scepticism with which this announcement has been met, not least by the auto industry and some groups representing the car-owning public, is an indication that the pace of technological change will prove inadequate in the context of the climate emergency we face.

Moreover, while achieving zero tailpipe emissions is plainly a worthy objective, the carbon dioxide emitted in the production phase of motor vehicles is already a concern in its own right, and greater for electric vehicles than internal combustion. There is also the damage caused by non-exhaust emissions from road traffic (particles from brake, tyre and road surface wear), respectively constituting around 60% and 70% of road transport emissions of primary Particulate Matter 2.5 and Particulate Matter 10, which have various adverse health impacts[3]

Responding to the Government’s Road to Zero strategy[4], the Committee on Climate Change concluded that “our assessment of existing and newly agreed policies for road transport is that they are insufficient to ensure the reductions in emissions necessary to meet the 5th Carbon Budget in the most cost-effective way.”[5]

Existing and newly agreed policies for road transport in the UK are insufficient to ensure necessary reductions in carbon emissions.

Committee on Climate Change

The committee’s first recommendation to the government was therefore that it should set out a vision for future travel demand. The continued rise in road transport emissions highlights the urgent need for stronger policies to reduce growth in demand for travel. Evidence shows it is possible to plan for economic growth while reducing car traffic, by promoting walking, cycling and public transport and deterring car and van use.

The key issue is that we need less car travel.

References