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Getting people out of cars is key to meeting net zero, says new report

Getting people out of cars is key to meeting net zero, says new report

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A new report from the think tank Green Alliance highlights the need for more to be done at a national level to curb demand for transport. Balancing the energy equation: three steps to cutting UK demand suggests that the UK will not reach net zero by just switching to renewables in the power sector. This will remain important, but much more is needed. To have any chance of meeting the net zero commitment the government’s focus will need to shift to reducing energy demand right across the economy, says the report.

Where emissions are concerned, it’s no surprise that the Transport Sector is named as the largest emitting sector in the UK. According to the report, transport policy is not anywhere near on track to deliver emissions savings compatible with net zero by 2050.

Demand reduction is key

Calling for an embedded approach to demand reduction that focuses on three areas – reduce demand, improve technical efficiency and flex energy demand – the report makes recommendations for sector policy priorities in the areas of Transport, Buildings and Industry.

Whilst we hear much of the development of cleaner vehicles, this should not be the only priority. Above everything else, Green Alliance believes the transport sector should focus on reducing demand. That’s not to say that improving technology is not important – it must also be accelerated – but there should be a new policy focus on helping people get out of their cars and use other means of travel.

There is some good news

The good news is that this isn’t a hopeless case! In the ten years to 2014 the average number of miles driven by 17-34 year olds fell by 20 per cent, and 35-59 year olds drove ten per cent less. Only those over 60 drove more. Car clubs and employee car sharing have immense potential, particularly alongside cleaner, less polluting vehicles.

We already know that there is huge potential for increasing walking and cycling, with the right infrastructure in place. Over half of car journeys made (58%) are less than five miles. It is estimated that half of these trips could easily be substituted with walking and cycling (Neves & Brand: 2019), leading to a whole range of benefits for the environment and health.

What about medium length journeys?

Something generally talked about much less are medium length journeys. We’re told that the potential to curb energy demand from transport increases massively if medium length journeys of 5-25 miles were targeted for modal shift from car to public transport. These journeys account for 43% of car miles driven and with better city, intercity and urban public transport are ripe to be replaced.

Of course, the benefits of shifting people from car to public transport journeys don’t stop there. The annual health benefits of shifting just 1.7% of car journeys to active travel is a staggering £2.5 billion. An estimated 65,000 early deaths are caused by air pollution in the UK each year, which greener transport will help prevent. And the 46% of low-income households who have no access to a vehicle would benefit from improved public transport.

Can the UK reach net zero?

The Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on preparing for and preventing climate change, has made it clear that the UK will remain off track in meeting its emission reduction targets if it continues to ignore energy demand reduction. It says: “It will not be possible to get close to meeting a net zero target… by pursuing an approach that focuses only on supply side changes.” (CREDS: 2019)

This report rings extremely true for us at BetterPoints. Our behaviour change programmes have demonstrated time and time again the potential for cost-effective modal shift from car to active and sustainable means of travel. Workplace challenges have proved to be excellent motivators for exploring alternatives to commuting by car and in various places, including Bologna, rewarding public transport journeys has led to changes in travel behaviour even on those longer-length journeys.


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BetterPoints is an award-winning, scalable and customisable behaviour change platform that has been used successfully to incentivise and motivate citizens to use active or sustainable modes of transport.

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