A Crisis of Wishful Thinking and Inconvenient Evidence

Most of us would like to believe that a better world awaits us when a crisis is over. It is also human nature to interpret a crisis as vindication of our views and repudiation of our opponents. During this pandemic I have noticed these tendencies amongst 'progressive' commentators as well as the militant motorists and science deniers who now have editorial support from Local Transport Today. How often do we read an opinion piece which says: here is some inconvenient evidence which makes what I believe in less likely to occur or more difficult to achieve?

I have written elsewhere about the belief that COVID-19 has confirmed the existence of a 'magic money tree'. I have also been reflecting on inconvenient evidence when considering a challenge which continues to grow in the shadow of the current crisis: how can we decarbonise transport faster than the 2050 deadline fixed by law?

Under the Paris Agreement, the 2050 deadline to achieve net zero emissions is a global target, which aims to keep global heating within 1.5oC. It applies to all signatories but allows more time for developing and newly-industrialising countries. That means countries such as Britain, with a long history of higher emissions, will need to decarbonise more quickly. Recognising this, many local authorities and other organisations have set a target to reach net zero by 2030.

After giving evidence to the UK Climate Assembly in February I was approached by some observers representing Extinction Rebellion. They have mixed feelings about the process. The Assembly is examining how to decarbonise by 2050. Would the Assembly's recommendations remain valid if applied more quickly, or would we need a new assembly and a different strategy? The XR CEE Braintrust, a new group of academics and specialists sympathetic to Extinction Rebellion, is examining what that strategy might look like.

When I began to consider what rapid decarbonisation would mean for transport I realised that 'faster' would mean 'different'. The Climate Change Committee make some heroic assumptions about the potential for offsetting carbon emissions; their favoured method, Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, has many problems. Even so, they have struggled to identify enough capacity to offset the two most difficult sectors: aviation and agriculture. For aviation the conclusion is very simple: we have to do less of it. For everything else, including surface transport, net zero will mean absolute zero.

That means after the deadline no vehicles can circulate powered by fossil fuels. The manufacture and disposal of vehicles, electricity generation and civil engineering must also fully decarbonise. All those things must occur whatever the date, but if we are aiming for 2050 what happens in the meantime becomes much more important – this is about total carbon emitted, not just the endpoint. That is why most of the analyses published so far concentrate on modal shift and demand reduction – the main things that many of us have been working on for years. They could help us to achieve the interim carbon budgets but they cannot bring us to absolute zero.

If we aim to decarbonise more rapidly, what happens in the meantime becomes less important; the endpoint will drive the trajectory. Basically, we need to electrify or change the fuels powering and manufacturing all vehicles and all infrastructure as quickly as possible (starting with the current consultation on cars and vans). Modal shift and demand management are only relevant insofar as they support that transition. Reducing vehicle ownership (and therefore the number of vehicles to be replaced) will be much more important than reducing vehicle use, which has been the main concern of transport planners and researchers, including me, up to now. Cutting car ownership is obviously easier in dense urban areas, where traffic removal and public transport improvements should be concentrated. Elsewhere – and for freight – decarbonisation of vehicles must be the main solution. Previous reports have emphasised the need to constrain urban sprawl and house more people in denser areas, but if we want to decarbonise more quickly, the potential to do that between now and the deadline will be limited.

The scale of the challenge involved in a rapid transition should be pretty obvious to anyone who works in transport. It would require the scrappage of many relatively new vehicles and would probably cause unsatisfied demand for some time before and after the deadline. COVID-19 has introduced new uncertainties into all of this. If the pandemic is resolved and social distancing fades into history public transport could recover and expand, although progress has clearly been set back. However, if social distancing endures for some time or if this is the first of many similar pandemics (as some ecologists have suggested) then we will need a very different strategy, with less use of public transport, more use of private electric vehicles and fewer people living in cities. I do not like that prospect, but disliking something does not make it any less likely to happen.

Dr Steve Melia is a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England

This blog was published as part of the Decarbonising Transport series with Greener Transport Solutions