Limiting climate change: the changing role of public transport

Paper presented at the ATCO Summer Conference ‘Why public transport? Why ATCO?’, Llandudno, Wales, 14 -15 June 2007.

A realistic future for any aspect of policy cannot be determined without reference to key factors that could substantially limit or enlarge its scope. The future role of transport is an obvious case in point. Consider the implications of the key factor that is now being widely recognised as the most pressing issue of our time, that is the one stemming from the near-consensus in the scientific community that global warming is occurring. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are relentlessly accelerating global climate change. Mountain glaciers are retreating, sea levels rising, and weather patterns, especially temperatures, altering alarmingly. A very real threat to life on earth is in prospect as the planet has only a finite capacity to absorb greenhouse gas emissions without serious, probably irreversible damage.

A major source of the problem is our engagement in far too high a level of fossil fuel-based activities. Annual per capita carbon emissions from burning coal, oil and gas in the UK are roughly 10 times higher than our fair share will have to be if the climate is not to be destabilised and an ecological catastrophe avoided. If we do not agree to restrict these very sharply, a devastating intensification of climate change is almost certain, resulting in a shrinking habitable land mass and a rapidly declining quality of life for a growing proportion of the world’s burgeoning population.

However, we continue to avoid evidence on this. Instead of adopting lifestyles based on extreme thriftiness in the consumption of fossil fuels, we maintain ones that are resulting in the production of hugely excessive greenhouse gas emissions. If we are to act as responsible ‘stewards’, the ecological imperative of protecting the planet for present and future generations must represent an essential – not a preferred ‑ background against which our decisions are made.

Government policy on this crucial issue is derisory. Wholly inadequate targets for reducing our concentration of carbon dioxide emissions – 60% by 2050 ‑ have been set. These are based on the hope that the necessary cuts in emissions can largely be achieved through a combination of more efficient use of fossil fuels and increased investment in technology, particularly in renewable energy. This approach is sufficient neither on the scale nor on the timescale required. At the heart of the matter lies the need to question the continuing view that growth is sustainable and that an adequate response to climate change does not have to, nor must not be allowed to, limit it. This is what nearly everyone would liketo believe.

It is clearly wishful thinking to imagine a future in which most people will be prepared voluntarily to dispense to a sufficient extent and in sufficient time with the attractions of the current lifestyles to which they have grown accustomed. Yet a relaxed judgement has been reached that the 21st century can maintain fairly similar directions to those of the last century. This is reflected in the near-universal state of denial, close to collective amnesia, about the significance of climate change for these lifestyles and a complacent pre-disposition to avoiding facing reality by burying collective heads in the sand on this most awesome of issues. We try to escape our responsibilities for doing what we can to avert an otherwise impending disaster by glibly wheeling out specious statements on the subject ‑ ‘technology will find the answer’; ‘the Americans are far worse than we are’; ‘our vehicles are much more fuel efficient than their equivalents 20 years ago’; ‘it’s for someone else to sort out ‑ that’s what we elect Government to do’; and so on.

There is, however, room for optimism. It is often argued that there in no silver bullet, and that a multitude of ways will have to be deployed to respond adequately to the huge challenge of climate change. The silver bullet is the Global Commons Institute’s Contraction & Convergence framework which is commanding growing support here and internationally. It is based on principles of precaution and equity enshrined in the UN Climate Treaty. The process requires the imposition of a cap on global greenhouse gases below dangerous levels, and a carbon ‘ration’ allocated so that it becomes equal per capita by an agreed year, with a phased reduction in emissions year-on-year to reach a relatively safe level of global concentration. A virtuous circle is created as the allowance is tradable: the energy-thrifty ‑ people not contributing to the degradation of the climate system ‑ become recipients of revenue arising from selling their unused allocation to those encouraged by the steadily rising costs to abandon their energy-profligate ways.

The process requires the UK to markedly reduce its current average per capita emissions of roughly 10 tonnes (two and a half times the world average) to about one and a half tonnes by 2030.Just consider: at present, the average individual’s carbon dioxide emissions in the UK for land transport by car and public transport alone are about three times the amount that can be allowed for all their fossil fuel uses for a year – as is just one round flight from New York to London!

Managing the transition to the very different lifestyles and patterns of development that this will entail represents an enormous challenge but one which must be met. Only government can enforce a system in which individuals exercise their responsibilities in this way. The outcome of the introduction of mandatory rationing will be that decisions in future will no longer be able to be exercised, as at present, largely disregarding the wider social and environmental impacts but as the outcome of individual choice when singe of using their ration.

We can be certain that the attention currently given to climate change by all sectors of the economy will intensify when this framework is in place, as it must – and soon. Most aspects of our lifestyles and business and commercial activity will be affected greatly. None can expect to be excused from scrutiny to establish the extent of its share towards meeting the target or standing in the way of that requirement.

What are the implications for decision-making of adopting the C&C framework and personal carbon rationing for the future of transport and transport policy? Achieving progressively severe cuts in our use of fossil fuels will inevitably lead to huge changes in patterns of activity such as a progressive, sharply falling-off in demand for road, rail and especially air travel ‑ the very reverse of Government policy. By higher levels of investment in the transport infrastructure, this policy continues to aim to facilitate further, faster, cheaper and ever-more seamless journeys in the process of seeking to accommodate growth in demand. The outcome is more geographical spread, lower residential densities, the siting of public and commercial facilities in locations only conveniently reached by car, and holiday destinations only accessible by flying – and a huge increase in transport mileage.

Over the last 20 years, average mileage by car and rail has risen by over a half and a third respectively. The number of visits abroad by UK residents travelling by air has increased more than four-fold. The UK government now forecasts a 40% increase in road traffic over an equivalent period in the future. And travel by train is planned to grow by 40% in the next 10 years and by air by 5% each year. Catering for this growth and delivering a sufficiently adequate response to the prospect of climate change from excessive use of fossil fuels and the ecological damage are clearly incompatible policy objectives.

Numerous examples can be cited of recent high cost investments in transport infrastructure already sanctioned or in the pipeline. This is foolhardy when considered against a background of policy geared to deliver dramatically reduced fossil fuel use.All policy, practice and proposed projects in the transport sphere need to be reappraised in light of this. Whilst there is considerable evidence of the fact that growth can be de-coupled from current requirements for fossil fuel use, it is very apparent that it is too closely coupled for that process to be adequate to the task.

The consequence of rationing will inevitably be a marked reversal of current practice and behaviour leading to an accelerating decline in the demand for travel. The future of transport and policy on it will be cast in altogether a different light with a fundamental questioning of the concept of ‘sustainable development’. Given the powerful links between growth, not least in the transport sector, and the hugely damaging effects from fossil fuel use associated with these changes, the otherwise attractive adjective, ‘sustainable’, loses its meaning in any debate on policy aimed at accommodating growth.

How has this all come about, given the growing understanding among policy makers and relevant professions – though not in the population at large – of the issue of climate change and its implications for future transport policy?

Some of the explanation can be seen to lie in a number of fallacious assumptions from the perspective of having to urgently adopt low-carbon lifestyles. They are apparent in the exaggeration of the roles of public transport and the hypothecation of transport revenue (such as from congestion charging and road pricing) in its support; direct and indirect taxation of as well as subsidies to motorised travel; energy efficiency; the approach of economics and with it the belief that a true price can be set on the full community costs of a tonne of carbon being released into the atmosphere (covering the expense entailed in adaptation such as building dykes or, more obviously displacement ; carbon offsetting (how does this help the Bangladeshis having to cope with flooding); and, most importantly, the turning of a blind eye to the incompatibility of pursuing economic and indeed transport growth based on forecasts of future demand and fossil fuel use with avoidance of catastrophic climate change.

So what should future policy for rail and bus services be? I would argue that no one can realistically predict how the people will use their annual carbon ration according to the competing demands on it for the provision of heating, hot water, lighting, power and travel. Certainly, it is very likely that the overall demand for all forms of motorised travel other than the bus will fall sharply.

Climate change and urgent attention to its implications, not least in the sphere of transport which already accounts for one third of UK carbon emissions, must be placed at the top of the political agenda. Our present parlous predicament is the consequence of past failures in acting collectively on our responsibilities – directly as individuals, and indirectly as electors who, in a democratic society, influence political decision-making. We are all to varying degrees complicit in a process that is already reducing the quality of life of literally millions of people and, will almost certainly cause the deaths of tens if not hundreds of millions in the near, medium and longer-term future. The only strategy now open to government can be to act resolutely to slow the pace of damaging change.

One thing on which we can be certain is that we cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand on this issue.The harsh reality must be faced is that if our individual lifestyles result in the production of more than our fair share of greenhouse gas emissions, then there are only two possible outcomes. Either others will have to be denied their fair share or, more likely, the planet’s climate will be seriously destabilised, with all the awesome consequences that are already being witnessed.

Without urgent and radical changes of policy, far more ambitious and visionary than the government has demonstrated to date, we will be handing over a dying planet to the next generation. By our silence in not challenging our politicians for their mishandling of what increasingly looks like being a world catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, we are running the distinct risk that the generations succeeding us will justly accuse us of outrageous selfishness in disregarding the consequences for them of the insufficiency of our actions to curb grossly energy-profligate lifestyles.

Mayer Hillman is Senior Fellow Emeritus at Policy Studies Institute. He is the author (with Tina Fawcett), of How We Can Save the Planet, Penguin Books, 2004, and (with Tina Fawcett and Sudhir Chella Rajan) of The Suicidal Planet: How to Prevent Global Climate Catastrophe, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martins Press (just published in the US).

Other references
Hillman M. The future of public transport: the dangers of viewing policy through rose-tinted spectacles. World Transport Policy and Practice, 2, No.3, 1996,

Hillman M. Why climate change must top the agenda. Town and Country Planning (special issue on Climate Change edited by Hillman M.), October, 1998.

Hillman M. and Fawcett T.(Editors),Livingin a Low Carbon World: the policy implications of rationing, PSI/UKERC Report, August 2005

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