It’s time for transport to make the connections on climate change

 

Recently it feels like there’s been a shift in the mood on climate change. This is no longer something too big and too distant that we can stuff it in a drawer like a bill we are afraid we can’t pay. Both the ever starker warnings from climate scientists, and the escalation in severe weather, are now hitting home. Saying you can prevent forest fires by raking forests floors ‘like they do in Finland’ feels symbolic of the extractive economy‘s (and their client states) chaotic, fighting retreat in the face of the growing confidence of the clean energy sector and the new economy.

If the mood music is changing, then where do we stand on the race to cut carbon emissions? If you want a succinct summary of where things stand on UK carbon emissions, then then I’d recommend the Committee on Climate Change’s recent ten year progress report and this brilliant suite of blog posts from New Economics Foundation.

Your time would be better spent reading them than this – but if you have time to do both – here are my thoughts on what on earth we do next on climate change…

1. In the UK there has been remarkable progress in decarbonising the grid – mostly through the dethroning of King Coal as the main source of the nation’s heat, light and power. However, as David Powell, Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation, points out in his blog post this was the relatively easy bit. Summarising the Committee’s report, he says: “The Government…needs to pull its finger out on pretty much everything that isn’t electricity generation: that means what we manufacture and consume, and the industries in which we work; how we get around; how we heat our homes and what sort of homes we build; and what we do with the land, and the soil, and our food. All of that stuff isn’t mere technocratic tinkering that happens around the edges of ​‘the proper economy’. It is the economy.”

2. The Government has a strong narrative on reducing carbon emissions but when it comes to the big decisions too many go the wrong way for the climate… and unfortunately, we haven’t got time for this one step forward, one step backwards policy dance. Pumping billions into expanding the inter-urban road network, making motoring increasingly competitive with public transport and bending over backwards to ensure air travel is often crazy cheap are three examples at the level of detail on transport where the need to reduce carbon has not been a consideration. The failure of the Budget to even mention climate change is an example of it not being a consideration at the level of strategic direction.

3. One of the reasons for this is that measures to tackle climate change are seen politically as being a drag on the economy. Not only that, but also unpopular with the public as they are seen to either increase living costs or limit lives (through, for example, increasing fuel prices or making foreign holidays more unobtainable). The tenor of the debate can too often convey a sense that this is a race we will probably lose whilst also consigning us to increasingly austere but lofty lives of penance and abstinence. This also plays into the recent global phenomenon around ‘taking back control’ from the technocrats who are seen as manipulating complex situations in a way which leads to people already struggling, struggling more, whilst those same technocrats ensure their own privileged lives are insulated from the impacts of their advocacy. The current fuel protests in France are an echo of those in the UK in 2000 and show how prices at the pumps can act as the spark plug for wider discontent. However, there is an alternative to environmental policies being seen as technocratic, elitist, hypocritical and life limiting and that is to recast them into a broader transformative vision which also incorporates wider social goals. There are signs of this ‘taking back control’ of the environmental agenda in how quickly the ‘green new deal’’ proposed by newly elected US Congress representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gained momentum. The ‘green new deal’ isn’t all about the complex fiscal and taxation measures that makes the economists purr, the technocrats preen themselves, the media bored and the public suspicious – it also emphasises that this means jobs and it means: “This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation.”

4. In the UK we also need to move away from the current ‘bittiness’ of carbon policy as an accidental beneficiary or victim of other policies to something which is far more integrated into decision-making as a matter of course. Only then will people start to feel more agency and less anxiety (of which there is more than enough to go around already) over climate change. And only then too can we really scale up and tackle the difficult bits that David Powell talks about. In addition, we can also start to get away from a debate on policies on climate change which tend to be dominated by fiscal and taxation issues to showing how measures which reduce carbon and improve climate resilience can also make peoples’ lives happier, healthier and more financially secure.

5. Some cities are pursuing these connections in a more comprehensive way than others. In Shenzen, China, all its 16,000 buses are now electric and all taxis will follow by 2020. It is also seeking to become more of a ‘sponge city’ through greening its urban landscape so that it absorbs heavy rainfall like nature does rather than the hard concrete surfaces of a conventional city which channel water into drains that fail to cope. With hundreds of years of water management behind them, it’s no surprise that cities in the Netherlands are also taking a comprehensive approach.

In Rotterdam any new development has to leave water management better than it found it. So, for example, a significant proportion of the costs of Rotterdam’s transformed Centraal Station were paid for through building a huge water tank above the underground station car park in order to hold excess rainfall and then release it when the drains can cope. In Berlin, there are multiple initiatives to make the connections between renewable power generation, smart electricity grids and smart electric vehicles. Smart grids have the potential to work with smart vehicles and smart buildings to move electricity around so it can be stored within the system – reducing overall energy use. There are ‘sponge city’ schemes there too.

And closer to home there is Nottingham, which has its own power station, electricity grid, electricity retailing arm, bus company, fleet of electric buses, the most extensive programme of greening the council house stock in the country, its own regeneration company, a major university green housing research centre and extensive ultra low emission vehicle initiative. There is enormous potential here for the kind of synergies on carbon that can be harder to achieve in other UK cities where the levers are held by privatised water, energy and public transport utilities, with short term agendas, enmeshed within impenetrably complex nationally organised regulatory frameworks overseen by absentee civil service landlords.

6. Connections also need to be made at the national level. For example, Daniel Button in his NEF blog on climate change and the health, points out that the healthcare system in the UK makes up 10% of our economy and around 10% of the workforce, and the sum total of activities of the NHS, public health and social sector is the largest public sector carbon generator in Europe! But given all this, what is the NHS doing to join the dots with on transport and carbon? Most of the debate around transport and the NHS is concerned with fund raising for helicopters and free parking, yet some estimates are that 5% of traffic on the roads is related to the health sector. There is much more that could be done around location of healthcare facilities, on inefficiencies with non-emergency patient transport and with the promotion of active travel as a way both to tackle diseases associated with inactivity.

7. One of the areas I’m exploring during my Visiting Senior Fellowship at LSE Cities is how we can raise awareness in UK city regions around both what world leading cities are doing in an integrated way on making the connections on carbon and climate change. But as well as that, to provide better guidance on how carbon reduction and climate resilience can be factored in to the day-to-day decisions they make on operations and infrastructure. These are things that they were going to do anyway but where there are choices and add-ons (some of which may be cost-neutral) which could contribute to this much bigger goal.

8. As the grid decarbonises, a big dimension to transport’s role in cutting carbon is always going to be about how rapidly we can ensure more of the domestic journeys that are made are powered by that decarbonising grid. But that shouldn’t be the only game in town – especially with aviation being allowed to let rip and current transport policies making carbon emissions worse from the sector.

It’s time to make as many connections as we can – and make city regions healthier, happier and more prosperous places by doing so.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

Six ways transport can help combat climate change

car splash flood

Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s climate watchdog,  recently called on the transport secretary to “Do more to cut transport CO2 emissions”.

This follows hot on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report on global warming of 1.5°C. The report suggested that limiting global warming to 1.5°C could reduce some of the more catastrophic impacts of climate change, rather than 2°C, which has in the past been used as the threshold for ‘dangerous climate change’. At 1.5°C, the proportion of the world’s population exposed to water stress could be 50% lower than at 2°C and food scarcity would be less of a problem. Limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C requires ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, cities, and of course, transport. CO2 emissions need to fall by 45% by 2030 (from 2010 levels) and reach net zero by 2050.

In the UK, transport contributes 26% of greenhouse gas emissions and, in 2016, transport became the largest emitting sector. Transport has seen the slowest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of any sector in the UK between 1990 and 2016, just a 2% reduction, the next lowest reduction being in the residential sector which has seen a 13% reduction over the same period.

CO2 figures

So what needs to happen so that urban transport can play its part in reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change? Here are six key headlines and areas that we at the Urban Transport Group are working on:

  1. Creating healthy streets allows city environments to support active lifestyles and encourages green spaces, which can create urban spaces which are more resilient to the effects of climate change. Additionally, if urban spaces are pleasant, then people will remain living in the urban area, rather than moving away, and this can help reduce travel demand. We are supporting areas to implement a Healthy Streets approach as part of a year of action.
  2. Active travel is the ultimate low carbon travel choice. Increasingly cities are developing infrastructure and wider supportive measures to encourage active travel (as outline in our report Active Travel: Solutions for changing cities). Shifting journeys to active modes can help reduce carbon emissions from transport. New research from Sustrans showed that walking or cycling could substitute for around 41% of short car trips, saving nearly 5% of CO2 emissions from car travel.
  3. Boosting public transport can offer low emission alternatives to private car use. In order to maximise the public transport offer and ensure that it can contribute to reducing carbon emissions it needs to be ‘available, accessible, affordable and acceptable’. Ideally public transport should increasingly be electrified, and great work is happening in Nottingham, for example, with the electrification of the bus fleet.
  4. Low emission public service fleets can offer a way for local authorities to reduce their carbon emissions and to boost awareness of low emission vehicles. We highlighted Leeds City Council’s vehicle fleet in our recent report on vans.
  5. Managing urban freight can offer opportunities to reduce carbon emissions, as van traffic is the fastest growing sector of road traffic. Shifting freight to water and rail can offer more sustainable options than road freight. Urban consolidation and last mile innovations can also help to reduce the impact of deliveries. We set out how urban freight should be part of the effective functioning of city regions in ‘Delivering the future: New approaches to urban freight’.
  6. Ensuring smart mobility is part of the solution, not a contributor to the problem. By this, we mean that it is shared and electric, it delivers environmental benefits and it isn’t just more vehicles clogging up our streets and emitting carbon. We set out our vision for Smart Futures for Urban Transport here.

Climate change is happening, and we need to take dramatic measures now to avoid the worst impacts of it. Urban transport will need to play its part, and we should heed the advice of Lord Deben and climate experts. There are already examples of great work happening in our cities. We must learn from these, double our efforts and accelerate progress.

Clare Linton is Researcher at Urban Transport Group

Oh, Vienna! Lessons from the world’s most liveable city

jacek-dylag-579742-unsplash

As part of our ‘Healthy Streets for All’ year of action, we were delighted to sponsor this year’s Healthy Streets conference which took place at the Guildhall in London. The day amply illustrated the ever growing ranks of cities seeking to put people, their health and wellbeing at the centre of their urban planning. In a day packed with inspiring city case studies, the one that particularly stood out for me was Vienna – named the world’s most liveable city nine years in a row. Maria Vassilakou, Vienna’s Vice Mayor and Deputy Governor painted a compelling picture of how this came about. Here’s what we can learn from Vienna’s approach – note also how it meets all ten Healthy Streets Indicators, flagged up in bold.

Children are the key to a healthy city

Vienna’s urban planning takes the needs of children as its starting point. The city’s leaders believe that if a city is good for children, it is good for everyone (Everyone feels welcome). A city that welcomes children means that families, and young professionals thinking about starting a family, are not driven out to the suburbs but are encouraged instead to stay and build their lives in the heart of Vienna. Doing so not only creates a vibrant, multi-generational environment, it also cuts the congestion and pollution associated with commuting (Easy to cross, Clean air, Not too noisy).

Places that are designed around children are pleasant places to be. Designing for the needs of a child means plenty of safe space for walking and cycling, restricting car traffic and providing opportunities for play and exploration (People choose to walk and cycle, People feel safe, Things to see and do).

Some 50% of Vienna is green space and they intend to retain this (Shade and shelter). City streets are dotted with trees and interspersed with splashy water features which are great fun for kids and offer interest, animation and a calming environment for everyone else. The idea is for people to feel relaxed, slow down and take time to enjoy city spaces which offer them something to experience (Things to see and do, People feel relaxed).

Affordability and fairness

Vienna, home of grand palaces, high culture and an impressive musical, artistic and intellectual legacy (Mozart, Beethoven, Klimt and Freud all called it home) is not necessarily the place you would expect to prize affordability and access for all. But you don’t get to become the world’s most liveable city by excluding people. Vienna’s vision is for a city where everyone can afford to have a good life (Everyone feels welcome).

An annual public transport ticket is 365 Euros, just 1 Euro a day to travel throughout the city! Imagine that. This, together with a welcoming urban realm, helps to explain why 73% of trips in the city are by public transport, cycling and walking. They aim to increase that to 80% by 2025 (People choose to walk and cycle).

The city also offers annual grants to communities to transform under-used spaces into temporary ‘neighbourhood oases’. Crucially, these must be available to everyone ‘without consumption’ – places that can be enjoyed without buying anything (Places to stop and rest).

The party where everyone’s invited

As Maria put it in her presentation, ‘People will go where the party is…let your city be the party’. Vienna is all about creating excitement and interest (Things to see and do). Giving children space to play. Creating public spaces that allow for temporary uses. Building an environment where everyone feels welcome. As UTG lead Board member for health, Jon Lamonte put it in his presentation about Greater Manchester’s emerging ‘Streets for All’ programme, we need to ‘make streets an invitation’. An invitation to play, to enjoy, to stay.

Rebecca Fuller