Climate change is no longer a distant threat. As we experience extreme weather events of increasing ferocity and frequency, we can hear its impacts knocking ever more loudly and insistently on our door. But have we heard the wake-up call?
Energy demand reduction
The latest IPCC report has been described as 'an atlas of human suffering'. The report's publication would have been top of the news agenda, had the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine not dominated media attention. However, the stranglehold that dependency on Russian gas holds over NATO member states only serves to underline the imperative that we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.
We need a massive shift to clean technologies, but we must also reduce energy demand. Energy demand reduction supports the three key goals of energy policy: security, affordability and sustainability. However, policy has been heavily skewed to technological solutions.
Reducing car dependency
Transport is the biggest polluting sector of the UK economy, and little progress has been made on decarbonisation since 1990. People have driven more and in larger vehicles as engines have become more efficient. It is estimated that we need a reduction in car kms of approximately a quarter by 2030 to achieve the net zero target for transport. The Scottish Government has pledged a 20% reduction in car kms by 2030. The Major of London has pledged 27% reduction.
Reducing car dependency will also be essential to tackle the escalating cost-of-living crisis. UK fuel prices are hitting new records, exposing the vulnerability of people on low incomes without access to adequate public transport, unable to buy a new car and priced out of the EV market. The Resolution Foundation calculates that the dramatic increase in global oil and gas prices will push UK inflation above 8% this spring and average incomes across Britain are set to fall by 4% in the coming financial year.
Since the 1950s a car-based consumer culture has ensured that our transport system has been built on the assumption that the private car is the predominant mode of transport. This assumption continues to be reflected in transport budgets and planning decisions. Funding for road building vastly exceeds funding for sustainable transport. Transport for New Homes regularly puts a spotlight on new housing developments that lock in car dependency.
The decarbonisation of transport will require a decisive shift away from our car-based culture. We must avoid a car-led recovery from Covid. However, congestion exceeds pre-pandemic levels in many areas as people continue to avoid public transport. Public transport is struggling to sustain even 60-80% of 2019 patronage levels, and without additional government Covid support grants it was estimated that 30% of bus services would have been lost.
The battle ahead
The IPCC calculates that nearly half the world's population (3.3-3.6 billion people), are already "highly vulnerable" to the impacts of climate change. However, latest figures from the IEA show that carbon emissions rose to their highest levels in history in 2021 after the world rebounded from the Covid pandemic with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels. Transport has the highest reliance on fossil fuels of any sector and accounts for 37% of CO2 emissions from end‐use sectors.
At a time of rising geopolitical uncertainty, insecurity of supplies and escalating fuel and gas prices, it becomes more critical than ever to design policies in a way that avoids unintended consequences and ensures a fair and just transition to net zero. We can no longer take for granted the strong cross-party consensus in the UK which had seemed unshakeable until the recent emergence of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group.
This will be a battle for hearts and minds. What does life beyond fossil fuels look like? We must make the case for a better life, with cleaner air, more equitable access and convenient transport. No one wants their children's lungs to be damaged by air pollution, for the continuing corrosive impact of car dependency on society, and for hours of our lives and productivity to be lost in congestion. How can we begin to re-imagine our daily lives?
The issue of energy security
Energy security is an increasingly critical issue. The IEA has been urging people to turn down their thermostats. However, there is also a growing body of opinion, that there may need to be some trade-offs in terms of decarbonisation, as we shore up our energy security at home and reduce our (especially EU) reliance on imports of Russian gas. Whilst some short-term tactical measures may be inevitable, we cannot afford any backsliding on decarbonisation.
We must avoid false choices. We must protect our energy security whilst accelerating the transition to net zero and ensuring that low-income groups are not penalised.
Claire Haigh is Founder & CEO of Greener Transport Solutions, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the decarbonisation of transport www.greenertransportsolutions.com