Transport to the Future

By Mike Davies

AS a society, in order to reduce global heating, we need urgently and drastically to reduce the greenhouse gases that we pump into our atmosphere. We must also cut the amount of other unhealthy pollutants that cause illness and death. A major source of both is transport of goods and people.

There are two main areas we must address quickly. First and most fundamental, we must reduce unnecessary transport of goods and unnecessary travel by people. Secondly we must make transport of both goods and people more efficient, cutting both the greenhouse gases it produces and the other pollution it causes.

We don’t need a technological miracle to solve the problem. The technology already exists – and there are plans, already underway, to move from dirty petrol and diesel cars to clean electric cars. That is clearly a good thing. But that move also provides a prism through which we can look at the overall problem. Conventional cars puff out CO2and other greenhouse gases. Electric cars do not, but that is far from the end of the story. Cars produce many pollutants, however they are powered. In particular, ultra-small particles enter the air from wear on tyres, brake pads/discs and clutch. How do you suppose tyres wear down and need replacement? Even the road surface contributes pollutants.

To manufacture a car requires huge amounts of energy, whether the car is petrol, diesel or electric. Its metal must be mined. Its components formed and assembled. The final vehicle must be shipped to the customer. Not to mention the construction and maintenance of the roads on which it will travel and the huge amount of polluting concrete required. 

Where does the ‘clean’ electricity to fuel electric cars come from? Surely not out of nothing? The source varies from place to place, but in Britain and many other countries it still comes mostly from gas, a fossil fuel, or coal, a worse one. The burning of gas generates the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. These may not cause local pollution on our streets, but they are still pumped into our atmosphere to cause climate change. Even that part of our electricity described as ‘renewable’ includes a hefty chunk of nuclear power, risking our present and polluting our children’s future for the next 10,000 years.

In future, walking or cycling for short journeys, and buses or trains for longer ones, should become the ‘normal’ mode of transport. Of course, the covid pandemic has pushed us in exactly the wrong direction, with many people becoming afraid of using buses and trains. On the other hand, the pandemic has demonstrated how unnecessary a lot of travel is.

Environmental costs

International air travel is a thrill for many people but disastrous for the planet. Air travel is forecast to make up one quarter of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Of itself it is hugely polluting, both in terms of greenhouse gases and in terms of other pollutants such as NO2 and particulates. It is politically problematic because it is both protected and subsidised. So far, agreements and plans on climate change have largely ignored air travel. While fuel for cars, lorries and trains is very heavily taxed, aviation fuel is tax-free.

The environmental costs of moving freight are also a huge problem. The key question, as with the movement of people, is how much of freight transport is necessary. Of course, neo-liberals from Thatcher, through Blair to Johnson push the idea that ‘the market’ is the only mechanism for deciding this. But ‘the market’ necessarily ignores externalities. Take the production of a suit for sale in Britain. It is not uncommon for the suit to go through half a dozen different processes in half a dozen different countries, criss-crossing Europe. More technical products criss-cross the world, and all this transport generates greenhouse gases that cause global heating. 

Shipping has long been the dirty boy of bulk transport. There have been few controls on dumping at sea or burning dirty oil for fuel. This must change.

We need to forget neo-liberalism. We need to forget whether it might be a penny cheaper to process something 10,000 miles away. We need to produce and manufacture locally wherever possible, whether for food, white goods, or anything else.Of course, those who profit from the status quo, and who put their profits before the survival of humanity, will disagree.

Mike Davies is Chair of the AGS and its candidate for the Leeds Chapel Allerton ward in May’s council elections

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