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Busting the Sixth Carbon Budget: major behaviour change needed for transport decarbonisation

A series of reports in June suggests that the outlook for achieving net zero on current planning is poor. Can the adverse impacts of climate change be reduced by individuals changing in their lifestyles, or is the focus on personal behaviour letting big business and governments off the hook? We talked to leading academics and consultants who took part in a major net zero webinar in June

Juliana O'Rourke
28 June 2021
From Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis, the report of the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change
From Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis, the report of the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change

 

Even if we can manage to 'get real' about climate change, how much do individual lifestyle choices matter? Does one small country reducing car use substantially make a positive enough impact to matter? Or, as with COVID vaccinations, do we need a globally co-ordinated approach on key issues to ensure that everyone benefits?

The answer of course, is that we all need to do as much as we can, and that governments and big business need to do much more.

The UK’s independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) report, Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk, was published in June and warns of severe heatwaves, especially in big cities, and more intense rainfall, with an increased flood risk across most of the UK. The CCC has also delivered its Progress reports to Government for 2021, which state that “delayed plans on surface transport, aviation, hydrogen, biomass and food must be delivered”.

Also in June, a leaked report from the UN's climate science advisors, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stated: ‘The choices societies make now will determine whether our species thrives or simply survives as the 21st century unfolds.’ 

Simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn't going to cut it, says Agence France-Presse, which leaked the IPCC report. “We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” added the IPCC.

Another key report released in June was the Institute for Public Policy Research analysis, All aboard: A plan for fairly decarbonising how people travel, stated that current approaches decarbonisation 'will not deliver a fairer transport system or achieve significant wellbeing benefits for the public, and there are questions over the resources required for the forecast 43.6 million cars in the UK by 2050.'

A further report in June, Behind the Targets? The Case for Coherence in a Multi-Scalar Approach to Carbon Action Plans in the Transport Sector, by Greg Marsden and Jillian Anable, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds, says: 'The Paris Agreement requires radical action across all policy sectors and at all scales of government...without a clear framework for sectoral budget setting which takes account of interactions across spatial scales, incoherent and inadequate policy responses will result.'

They add:' The scale of the changes that are now implied by the carbon budgets and pathways will require adaptations to ways of life which will be deeply political, and so there has to be clarity, accountability and fairness in the allocation of responsibilities and resources to match if we are to expect the local, regional and national contributions to add up.'


Professor Peter Newell, Dr Steve Melia and Trevor Ellis took part in the 'Behaviour change on the road to net zero: carrots and sticks' webinar on 24 June 2021. See the on demand recording here


On June 16, MPs debated the eagerly awaited Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the publication of which has been delayed. Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun, SNP) said of the debate: "In many ways, the debate could be called 'the lack of a transport decarbonisation plan'."

He added: "The UK Government are hosting COP26 and claim to be leading the way and talk of a green recovery. The reality is there are still no coherent interlinked strategies and policies to achieve net zero. Given that the transport sector is the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas, the lack of a transport decarbonisation plan is basically a dereliction of duty. 

"Why are the UK Government so behind in the publication of the plan, which was initially promised last year? Given that transport decarbonisation is so interlinked with energy policy, which is itself interlinked with the decarbonisation of our fossil fuel heating systems, it is imperative that these policies are complementary to each other and are interlinked. They all go hand in hand."

Busting the Sixth Carbon Budget

The IPPR report published in June eveals its analysis of the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget. This suggests that the CCC’s preferred approach to decarbonisation could lead to:

an 11 per cent rise in traffic between 2021 and 2050

a 28 per cent increase in car ownership, rising from 34 million cars owned today to 43.6 million in 2050.

'Transport decarbonisation plans must focus on providing everyone with the opportunity and the resources to make good transport choices – access to an electric car if and when you need it, public transport that is affordable and comprehensive, and walking and cycling routes that are safe and attractive, particularly for children on the school run,' adds the IPPR.

The Sixth Carbon Budget requires surface transport to reduce its emissions by 70% by the mid-2030s. The ‘Balanced UK Pathway’ scenario assumes that 97% of all vehicle sales will be entirely electric by 2030, and that average car-kilometres decrease by 6% by 2030, and 17% by 2050. 

Due to the dominance of these high-impact behaviours, or hotspots as the report labels them, the authors suggest that research and policy should deal with cars, air traffic and eating meat as key interventions. But, climate change activists have warned, does that let big business off the hook?

'The timetable for the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars will not occur rapidly enough to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget – further measures will be needed,' says Dr Steve Melia, Centre for Transport and Society at the University of the West of England (UWE).

'The 2030 and 2035 phase-out targets will only take us part of the way towards the decarbonisation of one part of surface transport. They should be regarded as a first step; further action will be required to achieve the carbon budgets required by the Paris Agreement and the amended Climate Change Act.'

It should also be noted that the assumptions of the Climate Change Committee have been more optimistic than precautionary, he adds."Some academic analyses have suggested that the UK would need to cut much more quickly than the current carbon budgets would require, in order to comply with the Paris Agreement.

"We cannot rely on electrification plus road pricing to achieve the surface transport carbon budget – further measures will be needed, to reduce vehicle ownership (in urban areas) as well as traffic volumes."

But does what happens in the UK even matter? Do individual lifestyle choices make a difference? If one country reduces car use substantially, is that a positive enough impact to matter? Or, as with COVID vaccinations, do we need a globally co-ordinated approach on key issues to ensure that everyone benefits?

Professor Peter Newell, co-founder of the Rapid Transition Alliance and author of Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis, the report of the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change, says that we need to think more broadly about behaviour change: beyond individuals & households to workplaces, communities and more. "It’s less about nudging individuals, and more about re-wiring the economy," he says.

According to collated research estimates, households are responsible for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions as a result of their consumption behaviour. Taken together, food, housing and transportation comprise approximately 75% of total carbon footprints, says the report. Given these stats, the 2019 ‘1.5 Degree Lifestyle’ report emphasises reducing meat and dairy consumption, switching to non-fossil-based energy, and reducing car use and air travel. 

Due to the dominance of these high-impact behaviours, or hotspots as the report labels them, the authors suggest that research and policy should deal with cars, air traffic and eating meat as key interventions. But, climate change activists have warned, does that let big business off the hook?

Mary Heglar from the Natural Resources Defense Council, and writer in residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute is quoted in the report: "The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous. It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics…While we’re busy testing each other’s purity, we let the Government and industries — the authors of said devastation — off the hook completely.

"This overemphasis on individual action shames people for their everyday activities, things they can barely avoid doing because of the fossil fuel-dependent system they were born into... Fight the oil and gas industry instead."

The cumulative impact of ‘hotspot’ behaviours

The sheer scale of the cumulative impact of these ‘hotspot’ behaviours, and the lack of substitutes available, makes behavior change essential, says Newell. In the words of Climate Change Commission member Leo Murray: "There are no feasible technofixes that can get rid of large sources of emissions."

Newall adds: "‘There is a clear dilemma, in that those areas where interventions might yield the most impact are controversial to target, or the hardest areas for policy to reach. And that’s before we consider fairness and equity."

As Climate Change Commission member Nicole van den Berg put it: "Poorer people shouldn’t be told to give up meat and to cycle to work. Equity is vital for this discussion." The Rapid Transition Task Force notes that while there may be value in "the stigmatisation of certain types of behaviour… we must make sure it does not stigmatise particular people in the process".

This overemphasis on individual action shames people for their everyday activities, things they can barely avoid doing because of the fossil fuel-dependent system they were born into... Fight the oil and gas industry instead

At the same time, relying on interventions that only focus on the high-impact behaviours of the richest in society will not deliver the widespread mitigation required. Car travel and diet require interventions that seek to shape choices and behaviours through infrastructure and the provision of services, he says.

Beyond these types of infrastructural interventions, there is considerable communications work needed to garner public awareness around what is regular and irregular behaviour in the realm of high impact behavior, says the report.

"We need to focus on impactful, politically difficult and messy behaviour changes - things that are at odds with how we live today," says Stuart Capstick, Deputy Director, Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation at Cardiff University and a member of the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change.

This could be achieved through awareness raising initiatives, communications campaigns and social mobilisation efforts centred around high-impact behaviours, such as car use. The process of setting the agenda will differ from nation to nation, and community to community, meaning that efforts must be sensitive to both place and culture.

The case for road pricing and its impacts

One such mobilisation effort could be around road pricing, which is being considered by many countries around the world. Road pricing was originally proposed (and considered by the UK government in the 1960s) mainly as a solution to road congestion, says UWE's Steve Melia. "From a neo-classical economic perspective, its purpose is to ration access to road space to increase the efficiency of its use.

"Today, we face a much a bigger problem: how to avert climate breakdown. Replacing tax revenue from petrol and diesel is a secondary issue. The politics of motoring taxation, which I have researched, create a risk that national road pricing might actually produce higher carbon emissions than ‘doing nothing’.

Trevor Ellis, Trevor Ellis Consultancy, ITS UK and founder of the ITS UK Enforcement Interest Group, was one of the authors of ITS UK's submission to a recent Transport Select Commitee inquiry. Ellis says of road pricing: "Be very clear what outcomes you want – to replace lost fuel duty, drive electrification, polluter pays? The form of road pricing introduced needs to be tailored to the desired outcomes."

Mobility choices, including private car ownership and use are changing and need to be included in the business case, he adds. 'A scheme which reduces motorised travel and increases active travel will have social and public health benefits. Walking, cycling and micromobility create much better connections between individuals and their neighbourhoods, as well as burning more calories.'

The key point that ITS makes is that road pricing is 'oven ready'. "These technologies are by now ried and tested and, once the policy objectives are set, the challenge of identifying and integrating the best technology options to deliver the objectives is actually not that great. Public awareness, and explaining what is being proposed and why, will be much bigger challenges, says Ellis. Technical experts will need to work collaboratively with policy makers, other transport professionals, economists 'and crucially, PR professionals whose job it will be to communicate about the road pricing scheme to the general public.

"Road pricing has the potential of being a valuable policy tool for objectives such as reduced congestion, improved air quality and reduced noise pollution, and better public health, in addition to the obvious one of addressing the growing fiscal hole in road maintenance and improvement. But due to well known past communications failures, it is fair to say it is politically tainted right now, and excellent public outreach activities will be essential if it is decided to implement it."

Steve Melia agrees that policy approaches will be key. "If the main objective is to reduce emissions as fast as possible, progressively increasing the tax on petrol and diesel would be more effective, and easier to collect, than road pricing.

"If a road pricing scheme were to tax congested roads more highly, and if its revenues were fully offset by cuts in fuel taxes, the net outcome would be an increase in vehicle mileage and carbon emissions. Even a fixed mileage rate would be less effective than fuel taxes at restraining carbon emissions. So whether road pricing would or would not assist decarbonisation crucially depends on the politics of charging motorists more for driving."

 
 
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