The road to zero carbon

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 148.

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Tony Eva of Carbon Neutral Cambridge explains the group’s work to steer local decision-makers in the direction needed for a zero emissions future.

Covid-19 is such a massive global crisis; how can we focus on climate change too? Besides, didn’t the lockdown reduce emissions – that must be good news? The pandemic has been awful – there’s no doubt about that. However, climate change is a greater long-term threat to humanity than Covid-19 and needs urgent attention.

During the pandemic, the global locking down of movement taught us some important lessons about the value of change when it comes to emissions. We saw an extreme shutdown in transport, such that by early April daily global CO2 emissions were down 17% compared with 2019. About half of this reduction was due to changes in surface transportation. What this shows us is that transport is a big part of the emissions problem and of the potential solution. To get to zero, many other things need tackling; but if we could lock in some of the changes we’ve already witnessed in surface transportation then it would be a big step in the right direction.

Travelling backwards: this bar chart shows how Cambridgeshire County Council failed to meet even its own modest target, with transport emissions up 25% on the county’s predictions
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What’s the Paris Agreement and how does it affect Cambridgeshire?

The Paris Agreement is a landmark environmental accord that was adopted by nearly every nation in 2015. Countries agreed to limit average surface global temperature increases to well below 2°C (and aim for 1.5°C), recognising that this would substantially reduce the threat of dangerous climate change. To achieve this, it was agreed that we need to achieve zero net global carbon emissions by the second half of this century. Under the Agreement, each country must determine, plan and report on its contribution to mitigating global heating. In 2019, the UK passed its own net zero emissions law, setting a target to bring its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Under social pressure, Cambridge City Council declared a climate emergency and called upon central government to extend local authority powers and provide the national policies and investment needed to reach net zero carbon by 2030.

However, the reality is that the atmosphere doesn’t care about the date by which an area gets to net zero. Global heating is driven largely by the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) – and it’s the cumulative amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that matters. So even if we could halve our emissions overnight, we’d still be adding CO2 to the blanket that already surrounds the earth and causes the heating we’re seeing. It’s essential that we get to zero emissions, and that we talk about carbon budgets rather than dates.

In 2015, the county council set an inadequate target to reduce transport emissions which they then missed by a long way – yet nobody’s being held accountable and there’s little public outcry

To be Paris-compliant, we know that globally from 2020 onwards, we can emit about 700 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a two-thirds chance of staying well below the 2°C target. We can take that global carbon budget, assign it to different countries; then countries can subdivide that into different regions. For Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, that comes to about 32 million tonnes of CO2 in total, of which 15 million tonnes is allocated to transport from 2020 onwards. This equates to a need to reduce our emissions by about 14% year on year.

Moving over to electric buses is important, but this will have a very small impact on carbon emissions. What really needs to be tackled is the emissions from cars.
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What progress have we made?

Issued around the same time as the Paris Agreement, Cambridgeshire County Council’s third Local Transport Plan (LTP) included a CO2 reduction plan which aimed for a 20% reduction on 2005 figures by 2020.

The latest data (2018) show actual transport emissions were 25% greater than those projected by Cambridgeshire County Council, despite plenty of talk about shifts to active transport. So our region has made no significant progress in reducing transport emissions. The county council set an inadequate target which they then missed by a long way – yet nobody’s being held accountable and there’s little public outcry.

Last year the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA) published the latest LTP for our region. This fails to include projections of greenhouse gas emissions so Carbon Neutral Cambridge began working on models to estimate possible emissions scenarios. Despite some heroic assumptions (including CAM metro being delivered on schedule and 75% of cars being electric by 2035), the LTP appears to be a massive failure with respect to emissions. Our modelling of the LTP implied zero transport emissions would not be achieved before 2080 and CO2 emissions from 2020 onwards would be about three times our allocated emissions budget for transport.

Can this be solved by switching to electric cars and buses? Many people are buying electric these days.

Cars are a big problem and electric cars will not enable us to meet our emissions targets. The current electric car fleet is very small and more than 90% of new cars – which will be in the fleet for around 10 years – are fossil fuel powered. Even if the sale of petrol and diesel cars ends in 2035, the rollout of e-vehicles will not be fast enough to help us reach our national emissions target by 2050 (even if we conveniently ignore the emissions associated with manufacture). As said by Professor Kevin Anderson: ‘We need to get away from this idea of moving 80kg of flesh around cities in 2000kg of metal. I think it’s clear that cars simply don’t belong in cities – so building EV charging infrastructure in cities is a terrible idea.’

Other cities have moved over to electric buses and perhaps Cambridge will at some point; however, this is insignificant relative to car use.

If you don’t think the Combined Authority’s plans will get us to zero carbon, what do you recommend?

When we look at where our transport emissions are coming from, passenger transport (cars, buses and motorbikes) makes 55% and goods transportation makes up 45% – but the latter percentage is growing. We need an LTP which considers goods as well as passengers and makes clear how to stop people using private cars.

We must focus on the rapid removal of cars (with exemptions for Blue Badge holders and a limited taxi fleet), aiming for largely car-free metropolitan areas by 2025. We also need to ensure rapid growth in active and public transport – for example by extending Greenways and incentivising the use of e-bikes. We should phase out city centre car parks, introduce workplace parking levies and remove on-street car parking in built-up areas. Of course, de-carbonising transport also means not building new roads.

In addition, perhaps one of the lessons we can learn from the lockdown experience is that we can significantly reduce travel and still operate many businesses. Video conferencing, rather than commuting to an office, would have an enormous impact on our travel emissions. We need to make it as easy as possible for people to avoid transporting themselves into Cambridge by car.

The emissions reduction which will be achieved by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s Transport Plan (top), is not enough to take the region to zero carbon. Only radical change will achieve the second figure – Carbon Neutral Cambridge’s scenario.
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Car-free metropolitan areas in just five years? That’s not going to be popular…

Creating a shared vision of a city which is car-free is a challenge. We need to consider what it would be like to quadruple the current number of buses, with an exponential rise in walking and cycling miles, with heavy goods vehicles being hydrogen-powered or making deliveries by rail.

Also, we mustn’t second guess what’s possible once people realise they’re in an emergency. Before the pandemic, there was a feeling that radical change was impossible. When Wuhan introduced lockdown, commentators remarked that it only worked because of China’s authoritarian state. When lockdowns were imposed elsewhere, however, we saw that many nations are capable of change at lightning speed when the messages from leadership are strong enough. It’s our failure of imagination that’s been at fault: we couldn’t imagine extreme changes to our daily lives – nor the rapid community action which arose from the need to work together and support one another. With political will, we can rally to achieve the required changes to adapt to climate change.

What role will cycling play?

During the pandemic, cycling boomed across the country as people moved away from cars and onto bikes. In order to capitalise on this huge gain for active travel, it’s imperative that people feel safe on their bikes – as they did in lockdown when there was very little traffic on the roads. Segregated cycle lanes are a good idea if we insist on mixing cyclists with cars, but they need to form a complete network which spans the city so that cyclists aren’t thrown into dangerous situations when they come to an end of a segregated route. To make cycling really safe, though, we simply need to move cars off the road. A cheap and immediate option is to introduce more modal filters – for example, using bollards or planters to close roads to through motor traffic.

E-bikes can also be an important part of the solution: for those who are less able to cycle for physical reasons or due to being further from the city, they offer speed and ease so could tempt many people who currently drive. Of course, there is an environmental cost to producing electric bike batteries but this is small compared with the cost of car manufacturing.

So, what should I be doing now?

The vast majority of us want action on climate change; yet when it comes to changing our behaviour, we find it difficult. We need to ask ourselves how seriously we are taking climate change and the extent to which we can each move away from motor transport and further towards active travel.

If you’ve been using your car less since the start of lockdown, consider the ways in which you can make this change permanent. For many people, working from home has become a viable option thus removing the need to commute, and daily walking or cycling as a way of getting some exercise has increased. These are behavioural changes which we must embed – now.

We need to ask ourselves how seriously we are taking climate change and the extent to which we can each move away from motor transport towards active travel

Of course, modelling the changes we want to see is only part of the solution. Schools and workplaces can lead on these issues and they should be encouraged to do so. We also need our key decision-makers to lead progress towards the local and national CO2 reduction commitments. In turn, they need us to encourage them to think that public opinion will support them to enact policy. Educating ourselves, talking to others about the issues and making our views clear to political leaders will assure them that climate change is a vital political issue on which their votes depend.