"Emitting more Co2 without being cognisant of the consequences as a society is a reckless and risky gamble. Every tonnes we can avoid adding to our atmosphere will give us a better chance of avoiding climate breakdown"
Venn Chesterton is a sustainable transport expert and tweets at @fb_venn. This article was originally published in SERA's magazine New Ground
It is incumbent on us to look for ways of reducing our emissions everywhere and across all sectors. The case is well proven that climate breakdown will threaten every aspect of daily life. Latest figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) illustrate that we can emit about 500 gigitonnes of carbon dioxide if we want a 66 percent chance of staying below a 1.5C rise in global temperatures. Our current rate is about 1 gigatonne every nine days. This gives us globally and collectively twelve years. So the case is clear - we need to decarbonise all sectors rapidly. And in most sectors emissions are reducing. However transport stands out as a sector in which emissions are going up. Personal transport is responsible for the biggest portion of those emissions. What options do we have at our disposal, and what policies do we need to push?
Cycling and walking
This is the most obvious and most visual. Many – although not all – car trips today are single occupancy which are well within walking and cycling distance. Reshaping our urban areas to better align to those such as The Netherlands has long been on the agenda. But the reality is still quite different. In the UK we continue to build new housing estates which have car dependency baked in. New builds, and most importantly existing communities, need to radically change how road space is allocated. Much like what has happened in my local area of Waltham Forest but on a much more significant scale. However I do not believe that the rapid reduction of CO2 required will be achieved through a step change in walking and cycling alone. Twelve years is not enough time to change the fabric of our urban areas to enable cycling and walking. And this type of mode shift requires real behavioural change which takes generations to succeed.
Buses, lots of them
This is where I see great CO2 saving potential if deployment is rapid. Look at what London did in the early noughties and what Transport for Greater Manchester are trying to do at the moment for inspiration. Within a few years, they transformed a fragile and disjointed operation into an integrated service that passengers really counted on. This transformation today would look like a ‘turn up and go’ service with wide coverage and consistent journey times that can be relied on each day across urban Britain. To achieve this we need a huge programme of bus priority across the country, bus lanes, traffic light phasing and congestion charging. These new buses and infrastructure would be electric - the technology already exists and is of a high standard like what we see in Nottingham. Successfully done within the next 3-5 years would enable today’s urban populations to leave their cars behind thus reducing CO2 emissions drastically and within the timescales set out by the IPCC.
What about the cars
We have built our lives and an economy around them. I do not see a scenario where the car goes away. Rural areas do not lend themselves to buses, those with mobility issues rely on the car and many people will simply not be willing to give up their cars and the enjoyment many do derive from the associated freedoms itself.
The challenge here is therefore ensuring that every car which is sold is electric within the next decade. This also presents opportunities for other renewable energy sources. A huge fleet of electric vehicles (EV) would give us the back-up energy storage and grid services to make renewable energy a more compelling offer. This is because they can store energy when it is being produced and release it when it is required by using vehicle to grid technology. Even without vehicle to grid, a huge fleet of EVs all charging at the same time provides opportunities to balance the grid simply by restricting charging to some vehicles during peak times. If hydrogen technology can make the break-through required to be a commercial success, a similar logic applies.
However the main barriers to EV take up are twofold. The most pressing problem is around production – globally we do not make enough. This is a huge opportunity for the UK to be at the centre of this revolution and take advantage of all of the green jobs which would come with it – from design to building the main components that go into an electric car such as electric motors, power electronics and batteries. It is also an opportunity to replace existing jobs in today’s internal combustion engine centric car industry.
Barrier number two relates to the perception that EVs are less seamless than a fossil fuelled car. The main issue here is convenient charging. Most of the time the vehicle will charge when it is sitting outside your house and this is easy if you have off-street parking. However about 40 percent of people park on the street and therefore will need to rely on charging being available on residential streets. There are solutions in the pipeline for this which need to be developed so that they are ready for rapid deployment in the early 2020s when supply catches up with demand. This means local councils working with central government and technology providers to develop rapid rollout plans for the early 2020s.
On the occasions that a journey is over 250 miles, which is likely to be the standard range of an EV by the early 2020s, they will need to be a robust nationwide network of reliable rapid charging hubs on the strategic road network. The technology exists for this now and will be different for each hub depending on the expected demand and the grid capacity. Some will be off grid using batteries to store locally produced renewable energy whilst others will be grid connected solutions, most will be somewhere in between. Much like on-street charging, the highways authorities, central government and technology providers need to ready themselves for rapid rollout in the early 2020s.
Furthermore driverless cars are coming, and the UK is well positioned both in developing the technology and for production and deployment. I believe the switch to driverless cars will start in the mid-2020s which has the potential to radically alter the relationship with the private car, and the type of charging infrastructure we build as a nation needs to be cognisant of that.
Emitting more CO2 without being cognisant of the consequences as a society is a reckless and risky gamble. Every tonne we can avoid adding to our atmosphere will give us a better chance of avoiding climate breakdown. Many leading climate change scientist are presenting scenarios which show that we have already sealed our fate and have little control over the level of warming we will experience. I do not hold this same pessimism. There are two clear paths to take - significant investment in buses and a step change in support for electric vehicles. Fundamentally we need to be reducing the amount of fossil fuels we use. The speed of change is the most important element of this.