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The road to zero carbon will have fewer cars

Edward Leigh. Picture: Keith Heppell
Edward Leigh. Picture: Keith Heppell

What extraordinary times we live in! It has taken a sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, to galvanise MPs into thinking about the climate emergency. Combined with the Extinction Rebellion protests, will we see meaningful change?

Averting climate catastrophe is mainly about de-carbonisation, which is mainly about eliminating fossil fuels as an energy source. Moving people and goods accounts for 40% of domestic energy consumption. (That doesn’t include energy that goes into flying and shipping goods to the UK, nor transporting raw materials, parts and workers who produce those goods.)

The Department for Transport’s Road to Zero strategy sees electrification of transport as the solution. After all, it’s another department’s problem to figure out how to switch three-quarters of our energy production from oil and gas to uninterrupted, zero-carbon electricity – in just ten years. That’s delusory: there’s no avoiding reducing energy consumption.

That means reducing travel distances: working closer to home, living closer to family, and holidaying closer to home. It means using more energy-efficient transport modes: train rather than plane; and anything (except plane) rather than car. It means buying more food farmed locally and goods manufactured in the UK.

“Fool! I’d work closer to home if I could afford to. I’d use public transport if it weren’t so slow, expensive and unreliable. And, name me a UK-manufactured TV.” I know. I know. Cello.

And so we meet the limits of personal choice and failures of government policy. Local railways have been neglected. Bus services are chaotic. Cycling infrastructure is a patchwork of compromises. Pavements are increasingly obstructed by sign poles, cabinets and parked vehicles. Meanwhile, Highways England is spending over £2.5 billion upgrading the A14 and A428, and the Combined Authority is preparing £1.3 billion worth of schemes to upgrade the A47 and A10, and build a new road bridge in Huntingdon.

Decarbonisation means that, in 2030, people will make fewer car trips than today. We don’t need more road capacity. We need more, integrated train and bus services; an extensive network of cycleways; and for towns and villages to be walkable. These are the new priorities.

Read Smarter Cambridge Transport's column every week in the Cambridge Independent.

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