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Thinking Beyond Electric Cars

A new report on climate change argues we must change our behaviour, not rely on technology, to solve our carbon problems

by Lynn Sloman

From listening to the headlines about the report from the Committee on Climate Change, you might think that a wholesale switch to electric cars over the next few decades would magic away our carbon emissions from transport. Many politicians would dearly like that to be the case: switch to electric cars, extend the use of biofuels, make conventional cars more fuel-efficient and we can all carry on driving as much as we like.

Take the technological route to solving our carbon problems, and ministers won't have to make any hard decisions about policies to make us use our cars more wisely. Senior civil servants who enjoy driving and can't imagine getting on a bus won't have face up to their own unsustainable behaviour. Instead, they can take refuge in the comforting notion that it's impossible to change our collective travel behaviour, and thus not really worth even trying. Best of all, it will be the next generation of ministers and civil servants who will take the rap if it all goes wrong.

But the technological route involves lots of uncertainties. It is far from clear that we will be able to generate enough electricity from renewable sources to be able to power electric cars (as well as everything else). Much biofuel production emits more carbon than it saves, for example by destroying rainforest. And on past showing, we can have little confidence in the motor industry's willingness to play ball in developing more fuel-efficient vehicles.

This isn't to say that future technology is unimportant. But it is only part of the answer, and a credible strategy to decarbonise transport should include action to change the way we travel right now. Look behind the headlines, and the report from the Committee on Climate Change is indeed advocating a combination of investment in technology and action to change travel behaviour. Policies to change travel behaviour could deliver carbon savings on a similar scale to the savings from new technology, and they could deliver these savings now, not at some indefinite future date.

What's more, a lot of the measures to get us using our cars more wisely are politically feasible. The committee highlights the Sustainable Travel Town programme in Darlington, Peterborough and Worcester, where better bus services, new cycle routes and information about alternative travel options have enabled residents to make "smart" travel choices and cut their car use. It recommends national rollout of a sustainable travel town programme, coupled with an expanded eco-driving scheme and incorporating eco-driving into the practical part of the driving test. It highlights the carbon savings that could be made through use of intelligent speed adaptation: in-car technology a bit like cruise control, which adjusts your speed automatically to match the speed limit. And it points out that new housing should be located where it is easy to use public transport (principally cities and large towns) and new shopping development should be in town centres rather than on edge-of-town or out-of-town sites.

The worry is that the government will focus on long-term technological solutions and do little to encourage short-term behaviour change. But trusting exclusively to future technology is the Superman solution. It's like ignoring the gently downward sloping footpath and hoping instead that at some point in the future you will be able to safely jump off a cliff to get down to sea level. The only trouble is, unlike Superman, we may be heading for a crash landing.

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