Time to use our roads to reduce our carbon emissions

We’ve seen Insulate Britain emerge onto their M25 stage in the last couple of weeks with their brave and dangerous protests. They are prepared to go to prison as campaigners try to wake the population up to the fact we are careering headlong into the worst crisis humanity has ever faced.

The M25 is an obvious target for campaigners. Like many roads, it is frequently congested in the same areas at the same times. Completed in 1986, within six years it was carrying more than twice the volume of traffic for which it was designed!

Transport is the largest carbon-emitting sector in the UK. This isn’t surprising when you consider that 62 per cent of car journeys are ‘single occupancy’. This doesn’t take into account taxi and private hire journeys, which are worse than single occupancy. Taking a one or two tonne vehicle with you for every trip is going to use a massive amount of energy that could easily be put to better use: heating homes, for example.

In order to adapt to our rapidly collapsing climate we need to build resilience into our transport network. One of the best ways to bring about resilience is to have a range of choices to achieve the same outcome. Our road network has done the opposite: we’ve consolidated many of our transport needs onto the roads and filled them with the most inefficient method of use – single or low occupancy vehicles.

Personally, I would like us to try and meet our Paris Agreement obligations. Research institute Chatham House says we have a 1 per cent chance of keeping global heating to less than 1.5° if we started to follow our own government’s policy. We have a diminishing chance to stop runaway climate change from ushering in a hellish future in which our children will struggle to survive peacefully, if at all. To avoid that future, we need to quickly re-imagine how we transport ourselves around. There are huge carbon reductions to be had in short order from the transport sector, along with all the other positive effects of de-coupling ourselves from our over-reliance on cars.

Take the M25 as an example – an example that can apply to any motorway. The Road Haulage Association have plans to electrify the UK’s haulage fleet, which will require overhead cables for motorway journeys. This capability will charge batteries to allow their vehicles to take the loads to local transit hubs, where smaller safer vehicles can distribute them in urban areas. We should use the ‘electrified’ lane for electric lorries, coaches and buses, building bus and coach stops at almost every junction for feeder buses to bring people into and out of London from the Home Counties. Another lane could be for small goods vehicles used by plumbers, builders, roofers, insulation engineers and the like, leaving the last lane for the essential car journeys that doctors, nurses, transport for disabled people, hospital patient transport, couriers and others have to make.

Yes, we need to improve our rail network, but that takes time. Sir David King, the chief scientist to a previous government, says that we’ve run out of carbon budget. [A carbon budget places a restriction on the total amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit over a 5-year period. Under a system of carbon budgets, every tonne of greenhouse gases emitted between now and 2050 will count. Where emissions rise in one sector, the UK will have to achieve corresponding falls in another.] He says that what we do in the next five years will determine the next millennia. The recent Chatham House Impact Report backs this up: the future is looking increasingly dire for us and our children. As far as decarbonising the transport sector is concerned, we will get a far better bang for our buck if we invest all the £27bn Road Investment Scheme funding into public and active transport.

The UK has one of the best road networks in the world: we need to use it in a way that reduces our carbon emissions in line with what is necessary for our own and our children’s peaceful survival on our only planet.

Postscript: I was involved in the early days of the planning of the Insulate Britain protests, but having spent the last five years as a transport campaigner, the possibility of injury or death was too high for me. Cyclist injuries and fatalities should be reason enough to make us want to reduce the volume of traffic on our roads. I’ve been repeatedly reduced to tears after speaking to families or victims of road violence, most recently after speaking to the sons of Maria Perez-Gonzales who was killed whilst she was cycling in Exeter a few weeks ago. It’s not a situation I would wish on anyone. Why we accept drivers killing five people a day on Britain’s roads is…well, a rhetorical question. We accept these deaths because the media have normalised these ‘accidents’, when the reality is they are nearly all avoidable crashes caused by driver error.