Electric cars won’t save us: sustainable transport is vital for climate action

This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 153.

Image as described adjacent
Anna Williams

The COP26 transport declaration claims the future is electric. At the Glasgow climate conference, global governments, businesses and other transport stakeholders committed to rapidly accelerating the transition to zero-emission vehicles and, by that, the policy meant cars and vans. Representatives of the car industry were invited to speak at a plenary session. Ford asked for incentives and infrastructure, Volvo waxed lyrical about products consumers would love to buy and General Motors said they saw ‘a world of all electric, where everyone can be part of it, and everyone can enjoy the benefits of an electric vehicle.’

Walking, cycling, buses, trams and rail? All on the fringes. Thanks to campaigning from sustainable transport organisations, including the European Cyclists’ Federation, a phrase of support for ‘active travel, public and shared transport’ was added to the end of the transport declaration, but British cycle manufacturer Brompton was refused access to the conference while Formula E racing cars gleamed from the exhibition stands.

Illustrated polar bear with a bike and the slogan 'This Machine Fights Climate Change'Electric cars may be part of the solution but, if we continue to emit at our current levels, the world has just seven years of carbon budget left. In Cambridgeshire, where we have higher-than-average carbon footprints, less than six years’ worth remains. We cannot afford to put all our eggs in the electric car basket; we need baskets and boxes on electric bikes, pull-along shopping trolleys on emission-free buses and cloth bags taken on foot to local shops. We need to stop waiting for the mythical world in which it’s possible for everyone (all 7.7 billion?) to have access to an electric car without any negative impact on space or resources, and start taking action in all the ways we can, right now.

In the world of transport, the equivalent of ‘Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is ‘Avoid, Shift, Improve’. AVOID is the most important – what journeys can we save? This is the world where many meetings are online and communities are built with shops and services within a 15-minute walk or cycle ride. Next, we need to SHIFT some high-carbon journeys to low-carbon options: improving bus services (including on-demand options, where appropriate) and creating better walking and cycling infrastructure will help make this happen. IMPROVE is the third-place option: switching fossil-fuelled vehicles to cleaner alternatives powered by renewable sources of energy.

At an individual level, I would add that we need to think about Changing, Speaking and Supporting. How might you use the Avoid, Shift, Improve model to CHANGE your own travel patterns? Could you cycle for one day a week and cut your carbon footprint by half a tonne a year? Could you batch some car journeys together to reduce mileage?

Secondly, it’s time to SPEAK out. Write to your MP and local councillors to ask for change, respond to transport consultations (you can find the latest ones at camcycle.org.uk/consultations), tell others what you’re doing, talk to friends and family about climate change.

Finally, please SUPPORT groups who are working for a positive future. There are many (cambridgeresilienceweb.org.uk has examples) and most are small but passionate. We need your time and enthusiasm, and we appreciate subscriptions and gifts to help us continue our work. Become a Camcycle member today at camcycle.org.uk/membership and donate to our Zero Carbon Streets project via The Big Give Christmas Challenge at camcycle.org.uk/biggive2021. Donations made between noon on 30 November and noon on 7 December will be doubled, and all will help us take action on the climate crisis in streets and neighbourhoods near you.

Anna Williams is the Communications and Community Officer for Camcycle. This article was originally published on 24 November, 2021, in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.