Carbon rationing to limit climate change: the most effective way of promoting cycling

Theme 01 – Cycling in the Wider Context

We are at a defining moment in history. Climate change is now becoming widely recognised as the most awesome threat ever faced by mankind. Accumulating evidence indicates that the choices and quality of life of future generations will be gravely affected as a direct outcome of our excessive use of fossil fuels. This is deeply embedded in all aspects of our lives. It is imperative that we face up to our responsibilities as current stewards of a planet with only a finite capacity to safely absorb the consequent greenhouse gas emissions. We must drastically and urgently curtail our energy-based activities in order to limit the damage that is already underway.

The most common excuses for not treating this issue as seriously as it deserves have taken various forms of denial reflecting our reluctance to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. It is not difficult to recognise a substantial element of wishful thinking that the problem will go away if we look the other way. All too often glib justifications are put forward ignoring its relevance to our own personal decision-making ‑ ‘the climate scientists could have got it wrong’; ‘technology will find the answer ‑ it always does’; ‘the Americans are the worst culprits’; ‘it’s the government’s responsibility’; ‘surely other Third World problems are more urgent’; ‘it would be political suicide for any party to go to the electorate proposing drastic cuts in fossil fuel use’ – as if complicity in not taking adequate action is exonerated by making such statements. All this has resulted in a disturbing degree of complacency encouraging people to feel that it is acceptable in conscience to maintain our profligate behaviour.

However, it is all too apparent that Western lifestyles are unsustainable as they cannot be sufficiently decoupled from their reliance on fossil fuels within a realistic timescale and budget. A strategy is therefore needed to achieve the essential change in these lifestyles to prevent ecological disaster. Having examined alternative approaches, the author of this Paper has shown that there are only two. The first is based on market forces in combination with taxation to restrain demand. The second is based on principles of security and fairness according to the Global Commons Institute’s international framework proposal for Contraction and Convergence and takes the form of per capita carbon rationing. It appears to be the one strategy which will assuredly deliver success in achieving a sufficient reduction in our use of fossil fuels because the ration will be determined to that end *.

Some commentators claim that the idea of carbon rationing is unrealistic. Undoubtedly, it is far removed from the way society works today. Nevertheless, failure to adopt equitable global and national carbon reduction targets can only have two outcomes. The first is that those who do not yet use their share, notably people living in developing countries, would have to be prevented from doing so. A simple calculation shows that if each person in the developing world enjoyed the same energy-intensive lifestyles as people in the developed world — and that is the direction being almost relentlessly followed — global emissions would now be three times their current level. This would result in an exaggerated impact of unimaginable proportions on the climate. The second and only other possible outcome of not steadily and speedily scaling down our consumption levels sufficiently is that, together with future generations, the world will inevitably witness and bear the costs of devastating and escalating damage from this source into the foreseeable future.

Of course, neither of these outcomes can be seriously contemplated. We have to choose a better future. It is no doubt for these reasons that Contraction and Convergence is being increasingly acknowledged as the only realistic option for governments faced with the prospect of climate change unless urgent steps are taken very soon indeed. Supporters in the UK include as diverse a grouping as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Synod of the Church of England, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Mayor of London and all the main political parties except the Labour Party (though even here 160 of its MPs just before the May 2005 general election signed an Early Day Motion backing it).

An obvious area of activity that must deliver at least its share, if not far more, of the overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is the transport sphere. Nevertheless, governments around the world continue in their attempts to meet as much of the almost insatiable demand as possible for ever more energy-intensive patterns of travel, where and when it arises. Their policies are taking them inexorably away from the essential path which would lead to the massive reductions in emissions that must be made.

At the personal level, all motorised travel, whether by road, rail or particularly air, will have to be severely curtailed in order to live within a personal carbon ration phased down each year from its existing level to the safe level of emissions that the planet can support. At present, in the UK, the annual per capita average is about 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Consider how this level can be brought down to just over 1 tonne ‑ which is that safe level ‑ within no more than 20 years.

In this context, it is salutary to understand our own carbon impact. Such a calculation can be fairly reliably made using the table below. But it is important to remember that about half the energy in Western economies is used by the industrial, commercial, and public sectors to create goods and services for individuals. So, once we have determined our own level, that total should be doubled to cover our share of these non-domestic sectors of fuel consumption.

Household and individual carbon budgeting

Annual carbon dioxide emissions (kgCO2)
In travel
for each kilometre
petrol car
: as driver
diesel car
: as driver
x 0.20
x 0.14
: InterCity
other services
x 0.11
x 0.16
x 0.07
{ 200
{ 90
: London
outside London
x 0.09
x 0.17
x 0.08
{ 230
{ 100
x 0.00
x 0.00
{ 0
: within Europe
outside Europe
x 0.51
x 0.32
In the household
for each kilowatt hour
x 0.45
x 0.19
TOTAL kilograms CO2
tonnes CO2

It soon becomes apparent from the figures in the table that the future of air travel under carbon rationing is highly problematical. For instance, a round flight from London to New York for a single person accounts for the equivalent of about 4 tonnes of CO2. This is the same as the average annual emissions from each person in the current world’s population for all their fossil fuel needs. And for all other motorised travel, there is a considerable need to travel far less.

And so at last to cycling! For a VeloCity audience, it is almost unnecessary to list its many advantages. It is a unique way of maintaining health if tied in to the routine of daily life; it is often the fastest method of travel for urban journeys, given a safe environment; most people could do so; costs are very low; and it neither causes noise nor local pollution.

So what role can it play against the background of having to curtail our excessive carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change? Clearly, taking up cycling is the most appropriate and effective option for many people wishing to make journeys up to four to six kilometres and, in combination with the train, for longer journeys. This requires a massive switch from the trends of the last few decades where the use of the bicycle has fallen dramatically owing to the fact that people have been encouraged to perceive the car as a more desirable form of transport and to pay totally inadequate attention to the outcome not least in terms of creating a more dangerous and unpleasant environment for cycling.

The longer Governments around the world procrastinate, the more difficult will be the task of solving the problems of climate change, and the greater the regret that resolute action was not taken sooner. They must recognise their responsibilities on this most crucial of issues by adopting carbon rationing. It is the only way of limiting damage to the planet’s ecological integrity. The consequences of doing so will be to considerably complement the worthy efforts of the wide range of bodies associated with cycling pressing for its wider integration into the routine of daily life, and for better quality provision for it as has been delivered in such an exemplary way by Sustrans for over 20 years. It will be the general public organising their lives within their carbon ration who will be pressing for these policy changes as increasingly they find cycling to be their main means of travel. That is the best way forward.

Paper given at the VeloCity Conference in Dublin in June 2005.

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