We should be looking to increase the efficiency of our transport network, rather than building more infrastructure, says James MacColl from the Campaign for Better Transport.
This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014.
Decent transport is so central to our lives that we often only notice it when it’s not there. Transport is something we complain about when traffic spoils a day out or when ticket prices stop us from doing something that we want to. Similarly, the infrastructure of transport is so embedded in the fabric of the world that we can be blind to it.
Our towns and cities are built around our need to get about. Our landscapes are criss-crossed with roads and railways. Our skies are full of airliners, carrying people to and from nearly every country in the world. Our seas carry cargo to the far corners of the globe.
Modern transport has made the world smaller and moving people and things long distance has become normal. The average distance travelled by UK citizens each year has nearly doubled since the early 1970s. Airports and ports have seen corresponding growth. In 2011, UK ports handled over half a billion tonnes of goods. Passenger numbers have more than doubled since the mid-1990s and in 2013, 2m commercial flights left UK airports.
All this activity has made transport both an important service and a major industry. The position of successive governments has been that moving ever more people and goods by whatever means is both socially desirable and economically beneficial. But far less attention is paid to either the significant cost this is currently imposing on communities and the environment, or the best forms that transport can take to enable prosperous sustainable living.
In response to the recent economic downturn, business groups like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute of Directors (IoD) decried the country’s crumbling transport infrastructure. They called for big investment, primarily in road building, in the belief that this would get the economy growing.
The government’s response was to announce a massive £28 billion road building programme. Next year alone, the Highways Agency plans to begin 57 major road projects and add 200 miles of trunk road and motorway to the national network.
The direct impact on the natural environment will be very considerable. Schemes like the proposed dualing of the A303 past Stonehenge, or the planned new section of the M4 across the Gwent Levels, will mean sacrificing areas with the highest protection for habitat and landscape to yet more tarmac.
Because of its impacts, road building is unpopular. The government’s last attempt at a major road building programme came in the late-80s and early-90s. Many of the schemes that were then abandoned in the face of mass campaigns and direct action protests are now being dusted off and revisited.
The most depressing aspect of this programme is that major new road building cannot actually be justified on the basis of demand. Although road travel did expand year on year between the 50s and 90s, it has since defied government projections of further dramatic growth. The amount of miles travelled on the UK’s strategic road network is virtually unchanged since 2006 and the volume of traffic across all roads is the same now as in 2002.
A car-based society is also bad for your health. Reliance on the car contributes to sedentary lifestyles that accompany poor physical fitness. For those living near busy roads, this impact is compounded by exposure to exhaust fumes which have recently been identified as a cause of cancer and implicated as a contributor to low birth weights.
A more car-reliant society is often also a more unequal one. Around a third of UK households do not have access to a car. Statistics show that this is overwhelmingly made up of those on lower incomes including young people, jobseekers and older people.
The more we allow our lives to be organised around cars, the more these groups will be marginalised, unable to access important services such as hospitals or employment, education or training opportunities.
On climate change, road transport is by far the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector, itself contributing a quarter of total UK emissions. Although the government has committed itself to reducing emissions from transport, progress has been very weak.
Unlike other sectors of the economy, emissions from transport are on the increase. This means that if Britain is to reach its emissions reductions target, other businesses will have to take the hit while culprits like road traffic, aviation and shipping get off from playing their part.
Rather than addressing this anomaly, transport is too often treated as a special case. Recently published draft national planning guidance would actually make it illegal for a planning inspector to refuse a major road project on the grounds it would increase emissions.
For aviation, commercial airlines are covered by the EU’s Emissions Trading System, but a wider deal is still some way off. Foot-dragging by the International Civil Aviation Organisation means a global emissions trading system will not be in place until 2020 at the very earliest. Shipping fairs even worse, with European Union measures to even quantify emissions not due to come into force until 2018.
Rather than building ever more infrastructure, we should be looking to increase the efficiency of our transport networks. Last year, Campaign for Better Transport joined with Cubic Transportation Systems, Telefónica and Thales to form the Smarter Travel Forum. Together, we are pressing the government to increase the use of tools like real time information, smartcards (like London’s Oyster card) and big data from actual journeys to make our networks more efficient. This can make cities work better, making them more attractive to investors and tourists and easier to navigate for local people.
Campaign for Better Transport is pushing the government to make it easier for individuals to make better choices, too. Rather than blowing the budget on roads and airports, we need to invest in modern, high capacity public transport, affordable rail fares and decent bus networks. Transport continues to make the world smaller, but we have yet to pick up the bill for our increase mobility. We urgently need to get off the road to nowhere.
James MacColl is head of campaigns at Campaign for Better Transport. He oversees the transport charity’s main campaigns: Fair Fares Now, Save Our Buses and Roads to Nowhere, as well as heading up its policy work. He recently joined Campaign for Better Transport from RenewableUK, and has previously worked on policy and campaigning for General Motors, RSPB and CPRE.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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