Driving less

Transport was responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emisions in 2019, making it the UK’s largest source of emissions.[i] Over half of those emissions come from cars.  The problem is that although fuel efficiency has increased over the last decade, so too have miles driven, and the result is that emissions are not decreasing. Reducing emissions from the transport sector by 2030 requires reducing absolute levels of miles driven.[ii]

So how much do we need to reduce driving? This depends on the ambition of our mitigation targets and whether we respect the principle of equity enshrined in the Paris Agreement, that all countries must contribute to climate action, but those who have emitted most historically have a greater responsibility.

Honouring the temperature and equity commitments in the Paris Agreement demands that wealthy industrial nations meet more stringent mitigation targets than politicians are willing to accept.[iii] What does this mean for the car sector? According to Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change and former Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, even with a complete transition to electric cars and clean electricity by 2035, car use (vehicle-km) needs to be reduced by 40 to 60% if the sector is to make its fair contribution to delivering on the Paris commitments.[iv]

Equity needs to be at the core of any meaningful mitigation policy and this applies not just between countries but also within countries, between wealthier and poorer parts of the population. The responsibility for these reductions in miles driven should be distributed fairly, with greater effort being made by those who drive more for leisure. In the UK 24% of households do not have a car and those with the highest incomes use the car three times more than those with the lowest. There are also spatial inequalities in the ability to reduce car use. Generally, residents in urban areas have better access to public transport than residents in rural areas.

An important fact to bear in mind when reassessing our travel habits is that in England only 3% of trips by car are over 50 miles but these represent 30% of total mileage, so reducing long distance driving matters.[v]

[i] Department for Transport (2021) Transport and Environment Statistics: 2021 Annual report. London: DfT. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/984685/transport-and-environment-statistics-2021.pdf

[ii] Brand, C., Anable, J. and Morton, C. (2018) Lifestyle, efficiency and limits: modelling transport energy and emissions using a socio-technical approach. Energy Efficiency 12: 187–207. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12053-018-9678-9

[iii] Local Government Association (2021) The future of public transport and the role of local government. London: Local Government Association. Available at: https://www.local.gov.uk/systra-lga-bus-report

[iv] Anderson, K. (2019) Aligning UK Car Emissions with the Paris Agreement. Provisional budget analysis for DecarboN8. Available at: https://decarbon8.org.uk/aligning-uk-car-emissions-with-the-paris-agreement/

See also: Milovanoff, A., Posen, I.D. & MacLean, H.L. (2020) Electrification of light-duty vehicle fleet alone will not meet mitigation targets. Nature Climate Change 10 :1102–1107. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-00921-7

[v] The annual per capita mobility by car in England in the period 2015-2020 was around 6,600 miles driven during 780 trips. Of this only 19 trips were long distance travel (over 50 miles) but represent 30% of total mileage (1,900 miles). Source: Department for Transport. (2020). National Travel Survey, 2002-2019. 6th Edition. UK Data Service. http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7559-7