Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on The Conversation and is republished with permission.
Globally, only one in 50 new cars was fully electric in 2020, and one in 14 in the UK. [Editor’s note: in the U.S., it’s roughly one in 17.] That sounds impressive, but even if all new cars were electric today, it would still take 15-20 years to replace the world’s fleet of fossil-fuel cars.
The emissions savings from replacing all those internal combustion engines with carbon-free alternatives won’t trickle down fast enough to make the necessary difference in the time frame we have: the next five years. Dealing with the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorized transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing the race to zero emissions.
Part of the reason is that electric cars aren’t truly zero-carbon – extracting the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them, and generating the electricity they run on produces emissions.
Transport is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise due to its high use of fossil fuels and reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure – such as roads, airports and vehicles. themselves – and how it integrates car-dependent lifestyles. One way to reduce transport emissions relatively quickly, and potentially on a global scale, is to swap cars for cycling, e-biking and walking – active commuting, as they are called.
Active commuting is cheaper, healthier, better for the environment and not slower on congested city streets. So how much carbon can it save on a daily basis? And what is its role in reducing emissions from transport in general?
In new research, colleagues and I reveal that people who walk or cycle have a lower carbon footprint in their daily commute, including in cities where many people already do. Despite the fact that some walking and cycling add to motorized journeys rather than replace them, more people switching to active commuting would equate to reduced carbon emissions from transport on a daily basis and travel by travel.
What a difference a trip makes
We observed around 4,000 people living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Vienna, Orebro, Rome and Zurich. Over a two-year period, our participants filled out 10,000 travel diary entries that served as records of all the trips they took each day, whether they were commuting by train to work, taking the kids to school, drive to school or take the bus into town. For each trip, we calculated the carbon footprint.
Surprisingly, people who cycled daily had 84% less carbon emissions for all their daily trips than those who didn’t.
We also found that the average person who switched from car to bike just one day a week reduced their carbon footprint by 3.2 kg of CO? – equivalent to the emissions generated by driving a car for 10 km, eating a portion of lamb or chocolate or sending 800 e-mails.
When we compared the life cycle of each mode of travel, taking into account the carbon generated by the manufacture of the vehicle, its feeding and its disposal, we found that the emissions of the bicycle can be more than 30 times lower for each trip. than driving a fossil fuel car, and about ten times less than driving an electric car.
We also estimate that city dwellers who switched from cars to bikes for just one trip a day reduced their carbon footprint by around half a ton of CO? over a year and save the equivalent of the emissions of a one-way flight from London to New York. If only one in five city dwellers permanently changed their travel behavior in this way over the next few years, we estimate that this would reduce emissions from all car travel in Europe by around 8%.
Nearly half of the decline in daily carbon emissions during global shutdowns in 2020 came from reduced transport emissions. The pandemic has forced countries around the world to adapt to reduce the spread of the virus. In the UK, walking and cycling have been the big winners, with a 20% increase in the number of people walking regularly and levels of cycling increasing by 9% on weekdays and 58% on weekends compared to pre-pandemic levels. This despite the fact that bike commuters are very likely to work from home.
Active travel has offered an alternative to cars that keep social distancing intact. It’s helped people stay safe during the pandemic and it could help reduce emissions as the lockdown is eased, especially as high prices for some electric vehicles are likely to deter many potential buyers for l instant.
So the race is on. Active travel can help tackle the climate emergency sooner than electric vehicles while providing affordable, reliable, clean, healthy and traffic-free transport.
Christian Brand is an Associate Professor in the Transport, Energy and Environmental Studies Unit at the University of Oxford.