Our transport and mobility work shows that the energy used in the UK for transport (vehicles, trains, aviation) can be reduced by 60% by 2050, compared to current levels. This would make it easier to reach the UK’s net-zero target, and would limit the amount of investment required for new energy and road infrastructure. Moreover, policies that target high-energy travel options (e.g. long-distance travel) are seen as the fairest, most acceptable solution.
Most high-carbon travel is done by a small number of individuals
We found that a small number of people are responsible for a large proportion of personal transport-related carbon emissions: 11% of English car users are responsible for 44% of miles driven, while the majority of flights (75%) are taken by 15% of people. Our analysis shows that carbon footprints are so unequally distributed that policies targeted at ‘high consumption’ activities affecting the behaviour of a small number of people would have a greater impact than ‘blanket’ policy approaches. Policies should also signal preferred travel behaviours that support the UK’s net-zero goals. Fares for high-carbon air travel and low-carbon rail journeys should reflect their relative impacts.
Targeting the highest-carbon travel behaviours is seen as fair
We show that public debate on fair and sustainable consumption will be needed to establish the acceptability of any policies that target travel choices, particularly for addressing ‘excess’ travel consumption. Our work suggests that people and policymakers are not aware, for example, of the full climate impacts of aviation. Voluntary behaviour change has been ineffective, so structural change, regulation and economic signals are need to incentivise the switch to lower-carbon travel options. Affordable access to low-carbon travel alternatives (notably public transport) would support the wider shift to active travel and electric vehicles (EVs).
Our workshops tested policy ideas for reducing travel demand and we found that people supported regulation and even rationing-with-choice, as the fairest options, with protections for vulnerable groups. Business flights, excessive car mileage and the most environmentally damaging vehicles were seen as valid targets for tax or regulation.
Policy opportunities for greatest impact
Travel energy demand is much more unevenly distributed across income groups than housing energy demand. For maximum impact on emissions, policymakers should focus more on reducing long distance car use and frequent flying than on household energy in the shorter term.
Carbon emissions from aviation are much bigger in absolute and relative terms than is typically acknowledged. Policy changes such as a frequent flyer levy would affect a small number of people but could have a significant benefit for carbon reductions.
We commissioned surveys to look at travel patterns before, during and post-pandemic. We could see the impact of reduced travel demand and were able to identify new travel behaviours that policies could encourage to deliver multiple benefits for health, congestion, net-zero and air quality. Our analysis showed that the biggest and most sustained change was an increase in walking, with car travel and public transport use still to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Helping communities to plan for change
The Place-based Carbon Calculator (PBCC) is a free online, area-based carbon footprint tool for England, using data about household and travel energy use. It shows the composition of carbon footprints in small areas, and is being used by local authorities and community-based groups to plan the most effective ways to reduce their carbon emissions.
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