So everyone’s heard about the UN report warning that we only have 12 years to limit global warming. Climate change can sometimes feel intangible compared to say, plastic litter, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why the drive to reduce plastic use has taken off while the movement to go car-free has yet to gain traction. But the effects of greenhouse gas emissions are quite real. All the things you care about – social justice, the survival of species, your children’s future – are all at being impacted by climate breakdown as you read this.
Although there are many ways that we as individuals can reduce our carbon footprint (this is a good summary here) I’ve decided to focus this piece on car use, as transport is the one area where CO2 emissions in the UK are actually increasing. Car use is also one of the main causes of air pollution, which is thought to be behind the deaths of 28,000 – 36,000 deaths in the UK every year. In fact, earlier this year, air pollution was linked directly to the death of a 9 year-old girl in London.
Green transport is the bit everyone knows – we should all be walking, cycling and catching the bus. I could point out that walking and cycling is also great for keeping fit and saving money, but you already realise that. Whether or not you need to drive depends very much on your individual circumstances, especially the area where you live. In terms of environmental impact, what matters is not so much whether you happen to drive, but how much and with what fuel.
If you need to do a lot of driving, could you get an electric car? These are not perfect – I’ve already written about them here – but they can go a long way to reducing the carbon emissions from car use, especially if they are run on clean energy. If an electric car is not an option, go for a fuel-efficient petrol car that is the smallest size that meets your needs. Do not even think about a diesel car or an SUV.
If you need a car for some journeys, but don’t need to drive every day, are there any car clubs local to you? If they offer electric cars, even better. These clubs can reduce the amount of cars on roads, relieving congestion and reducing the impacts of manufacturing new cars and disposing of old ones. They should also reduce the temptation to drive for short journeys, as well as saving you the hassle of car ownership.
If a car is the only realistic way for you to get to work, could you car share? Or can you get your groceries delivered by an electric van? Some zero waste shops offer this service.
Also, are you sure that your local public transport is so bad? Have you tried it recently? Cars are often sold to us as offering freedom, but for me, one of the positives of giving up my car was the relief from the headache of paying for it, taxing, insuring and maintaining it, filling it up with fuel, finding somewhere to park it, and the rest. When I get on a bus somebody else worries about the route and the maintenance while I relax and look out of the window. When I am on my bike, I speed past the traffic jams.
Having said that, poor local transport infrastructure can be a big barrier for many people who would like to drive less. Where I live now there are good public transport connections and designated cycle lanes. But I have lived in places where public transport is a joke, or I didn’t dare cycle to work as there were no designated cycle lanes and the traffic was terrifying. For many people, navigating public transport with pushchairs or wheelchairs can be tricky, while some transport fares are absurdly expensive.
But these are all policy decisions. If you are frustrated by the lack of low carbon transport infrastructure in your area, do your local politicians know? Research finds that one of the reasons that politicians do not act on climate change, for example, is because they do not feel any pressure from voters to act. So does your local council/MP know you are frustrated with your local options? Imagine if the demand for safe, accessible and clean transport became a major voting issue – what difference might that make?
Car driving also has a circular relationship with local air pollution – on the one hand, it is a major cause of it, on the other, travelling inside a car can put you at more risk from it – levels of air pollution are 9 to 12 times higher inside the car than outside it. Children are particularly vulnerable. If you decide to walk with your children, experts recommend taking quieter streets, as this can cut exposure to pollution by up to two thirds. The health benefits of walking and cycling still outweigh the costs of breathing in pollution.