With COP26 over and climate policies still prominent in the public eye, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider whether the commitments of the participating nations are going far enough. It is undeniable that humanity has made significant strides towards tackling climate change over the last several decades, but it is also immediately obvious that much more needs to be done if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century. Drastic action is desperately required – could a steep reduction in the number of cars on our roads be it?
Understandably, this suggestion is immediately controversial. Cars provide freedom and opportunity for all who are fortunate enough to own one. They promote greater social mobility by allowing people to search for employment away from their homes; they allow independent travel which supports hectic 21st century lifestyles and, perhaps most importantly, they facilitate connections to those that we cherish. This independence comes at a severe environmental cost.
Our modern car-centric culture results in long, congested traffic jams and over reliance of cars for journeys in which other forms of transport may be more appropriate. All of these spit greenhouse gases and particulate matter into the atmosphere. In the US, vehicles are responsible for one third of all air pollution and, as the exhaust fumes are emitted at street level, this can contribute towards several acute respiratory diseases. In addition to their harmful emissions, vehicle fuels also pose several other indirect environmental harms from their extraction and logistics – it takes a lot of fuel to ship oil from the Middle East to Durham.
Those that choose electric vehicles are not free from the adverse effects of car ownership. The necessity of privately owned cars has produced the car manufacturing industry from which significant emissions are released during the production phase. When a brand-new car leaves the factory, it leaves with an exceptionally large carbon footprint.
So, we are left with a paradox. How do we relieve the environmental burden of car ownership while retaining the freedom that we have grown accustomed to?
On an individual level, a good action to take to reduce your vehicular carbon footprint is to, unsurprisingly, use it less. The very best thing to do would be to not own one at all. This is not such a drastic option. The UK has a good public transport system which is more than adequate for many daily commutes and for many careers. In addition, more demand for public transport will inspire greater investment and eventually lead to improved services for all. Being relieved of the temptation to drive short distances also encourages us to walk or cycle more, encouraging healthier lifestyles.
There are many for which this lifestyle is not accessible or feasible. Public transport links are notoriously unreliable in more rural environments. For others, mobility issues can cause the public transport hubs to be out of their reach and so, to have the kind of opportunities which we should all enjoy, they need private transport.
However, this is not really the point. If enough people can convert to a car free existence, the demand would be there and private companies would provide for that. However, people are not going to trade in their transportational freedom purely on the hope of catalysing an environmental utopia. Public transport may be sufficient to get by, but it is still prohibitively expensive for many journeys.
This is where societal change must happen. Government incentives and subsidies must make the cost of public transport commensurate to that of owning and maintaining a car. Investment in infrastructure must be made to make public transport a viable, accessible alternative. It is an enormous challenge but one that is evidently necessary for a more sustainable society.
Illustration: Mollie Dunne