Reliance on electric cars to solve climate emergency would be a COP-out


A group of the UK’s leading sustainable transport NGOs is appealing to world leaders to recognise that technology alone cannot reduce transport emissions. Reducing traffic and shifting towards public and community transport, walking, cycling and shared mobility must be a major climate goal, which can unleash widespread health, wellbeing and social justice benefits.   

As the focus of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) turns to transport – the biggest source of greenhouse emissions in the UK and the fastest rising globally – the Sustainable Transport Alliance is highlighting that solely focussing on electric vehicles (EVs) would mean ignoring their social and environmental drawbacks – including a potential 51 per cent increase in road traffic in the UK – and the immediate benefits of shifting more journeys to existing greener forms of transport.  

The group is outlining how the UK, as president of COP26, can lead the way globally by drawing on community actions and voices to place walking and cycling, public, community and shared transport at the heart of climate ambitions. This would be in line with the UK Government’s commitments to make public transport and active travel the natural choice, and the Scottish and Welsh Governments’ targets to reduce private vehicle use. 

With more than half (55 per cent) of all UK transport emissions coming from cars, Sustainable Transport Alliance partners spoke at a Green Zone event at COP26, highlighting measures that could help ensure the UK meets its net zero commitment. 

These measures includes introducing progressively tightening targets to reduce motorised traffic, setting short- and medium-term carbon reduction targets to deliver on its welcome long-term decarbonisation declarations, ensuring public, shared, community and active travel are attractive and viable alternatives to private car use, and investing in social infrastructure to boost communities’ ability to advocate for local needs. 

Jools Townsend, chair of the Sustainable Transport Alliance, and chief executive of Community Rail Network, said: “The inspiring campaigners and change-makers from around the world who have been addressing COP26 have been underlining how we must put people, communities and justice at the forefront in tackling the climate crisis, and this very much applies to transport.  

“The evidence is clear that we cannot put all our faith in electric cars – we need a more fundamental shift in how we get around, and we have much to gain from this. By focusing on a shift towards public, shared and community transport, walking and cycling, we can create healthier, happier communities and more equal access to opportunity, without adding to emissions and environmental problems through the manufacture of millions more cars.  

“We are proud to be coming together with our NGO partners at COP26 to showcase action and amplify voices within communities across the UK that are working towards a greener, better, more inclusive transport future.” 

Richard Dilks, chief executive of CoMoUK, said: “The world is watching Glasgow and hoping that countries can come together to tackle the climate emergency. While international action is vital, local communities can also make a difference in creating a cleaner, greener transport future. By showcasing examples of how to shift people away from private car use, COP26 is an opportunity for Scotland and the UK to demonstrate the role of grassroots action as part of local, national and international transport decarbonisation.” 

Paul Tuohy, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Whilst we recognise the important contribution electric vehicles will have in reducing carbon emissions in the future, we need to reduce emissions now. Persuading more people to swap at least some journeys from cars to public transport will have immediate benefits for the climate. So rather than saying it is business as usual and technology will save the day, our leaders need to be upfront with people on what each of us needs to do and provide the right investment and infrastructure to enable us to do it.” 

To highlight the challenges and benefits of reducing private car use and recognise the importance of local communities in creating a cleaner, greener transport future, the Sustainable Transport Alliance held an interactive session, ‘People make transport: communities enabling greener travel’, in the Green Zone of COP26. The session showcased how local initiatives can engage and empower people to achieve climate-safe, healthy and inclusive transport systems and behaviours, with examples and insights on how bringing people and partners together locally leads to innovation and integration across different transport modes.  

Examples of local projects which were highlighted at the event included an employment mobility pilot in South Wales Valleys; a travel confidence scheme with young people in Lancashire; people-centred street design in East London; and place-making and active travel development in the host city of Glasgow.  

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