Our Transport and Mobility work clearly demonstrates that the amount of energy used in the UK for transport (vehicles, trains, aviation) can be reduced by 60% by 2050Opens in a new tab, compared to current levels.
This would make the task of reaching the government’s net-zero target much easier, and would limit the amount of investment required for new energy and road infrastructure. Moreover, policies that carefully target high-energy personal travel (e.g. long-distance travel) are seen as the fairest, most acceptable solution. The predominant policy focus is on a transition to electric vehicles but this will be insufficient to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. To meet the 2050 deadline, there must be an overall reduction in travel demand in the UK, alongside an increase in public transport use and a shift to active travel options.
Most high-carbon personal travel is done by a small number of individuals
We found that a very small number of long-distance trips is responsible for a large proportion of personal transport-related carbon emissions. Overall, 3% of trips are responsible for 60% of miles travelled and 70% of carbon emissions from personal travel (including flights).
Our research showed that carbon footprints for personal travel are so unequally distributed that policies targeted at ‘high consumption’ activities will affect relatively small proportions of the population, yet will have a greater impact than ‘blanket’ policy approaches. For example, just 11% of car users are responsible for 44% of miles driven, and the majority of flights (75%) are taken by 15% of people.
Targeting the highest-carbon travel behaviours is seen as fair
We show that public debate on fair and sustainable consumption is likely to be needed to establish the acceptability of any policies that target travel choices, particularly when we consider ‘excess’ travel consumption. For example, our work suggests that people and policymakers are not aware of the severity of the climate impacts of aviation and thus the importance of cutting demand for air travel.
Voluntary behaviour change has so far been ineffective and our research suggests that without structural change, regulation and economic signals, people will have no incentive to switch to lower-carbon travel options. It is clear that affordable access to low-carbon travel alternatives (notably public transport) will be need to support the public’s switch to active travel and electric vehicles (EVs).
Our research used workshops to test options for reducing travel demand. Participants represented the full range of travel behaviours. Presented with relevant information and taking account of the trade-offs associated with different approaches, people gave their support to regulation and even rationing-with-choice, which were seen as the fairest options. Business flights, excessive car mileage and the most environmentally damaging vehicles were seen as valid targets for policies options such taxation or regulation. However, any changes would need to incorporate protections for vulnerable groups.
Our research suggests that policies should clearly signal preferred travel behaviours that will enable the UK to achieve its net-zero goals. So, fares for high-carbon air travel and low-carbon rail journeys should reflect their relative contribution to net-zero ambitions.
Policy opportunities for greatest impact
Travel energy demand is much more unevenly distributed than housing energy demand. We argue that to achieve the UK’s ambitious carbon reduction targets, in the short term, policymakers would have greatest impact by prioritising the reduction in long distance car use and frequent flying over reducing household energy use.
Transport emissions are concentrated in the wealthiest groups of our society, with the wealthiest 10% households being responsible for 25% personal transport emissions.
Carbon emissions from aviation are much bigger in absolute and relative terms than is typically acknowledged. Frequent flying has been normalised, but is largely undertaken by the wealthiest in society. Policy changes such as a frequent flyer levy or air travel taxes would affect a small number of people, mostly those on higher incomes, but would have a significant benefit for carbon reductions.
CREDS’ researchers made use of UK-wide survey data to assess travel demand and travel behaviours pre-, during and post-lockdowns associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. This has provided unparalleled opportunity to see the impact of reduced travel demand and to identify travel patterns that could be encouraged for the long-term for multiple benefits such as health, congestion, net-zero and air quality. Our analysis showed that the biggest and most sustained change was an increase in walking. There was also an increase in cycling during the pandemic, but largely for leisure rather than replacing car trips. Neither car travel nor the use of public transport had returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022.
A focus on shifting short-distance trips to low carbon options will be insufficient, and misses the bigger prize of cutting the much larger carbon footprint of long-distance travel, particularly flying and long-distance car travel.
Helping communities to plan for change
CREDS was able to fund the development of the Place-based Carbon CalculatorOpens in a new tab (PBCC). This free online, area-based carbon footprint tool for England takes data on household and travel energy use, and shows how the composition of carbon footprints vary from area to area. This can be used to help organisations like local authorities and community-based groups to understand the make-up of their local carbon footprint, and to plan the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions. Not all communities can contribute in the same way (rural areas are usually more car-dependent than urban areas, for example) and the PBCC provides information to help to develop appropriate place-based responses.
Mobility options from the sharing economy
We investigated how the sharing economy could reduce transport-related carbon emissions. At any one time only 15% of the private car fleet is in use, with around a third of vehicles not moving in a given week. Only 15% of cars follow a typical ‘commuting’ pattern, so there is scope to make better use of the existing car fleet. Our Commission on Travel Demand showed that we could meet mobility demands with a smaller vehicle fleet, with opportunities for innovative mobility services, such as shared ownership, but further work would be needed to demonstrate how shared mobility services could be developed, with the support of consumers.
The findings described here are a result of several, diverse individual research projects conducted as part of CREDS transport and mobility theme. These projects used a suite of methodologies, including literature reviews, data analysis and modelling (e.g. Place-based carbon calculator, long-distance travel), surveys (e.g. Covid travel behaviours, high energy demand consumers) and stakeholder workshops (e.g. high energy demand consumers). This work generated several peer-reviewed outputs such as research papers (listed in the publications section of this website) and book chapters.
Banner photo credit: Mangopear Creative on Unsplash