As we gear up for Climate Week 2013, 4 – 10 March, it is timely to reflect on how the UK is measuring up to the challenge of reducing carbon emissions.
In its annual progress report last year the Committee on Climate Change concluded that underlying progress has been too modest and represents barely a quarter of what’s needed to meet future carbon budgets.
It is clear that we are going to need to re-double our efforts if we are going to meet the target of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.
Transport presents major challenges
Transport is the sector which presents some of the greatest challenges. Cars produce around 60% of domestic transport emissions, which as a sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of all emissions in the UK.
We cannot rely on low carbon technologies alone to deliver the reductions needed. While some progress has been made on new car emissions, people are also travelling further and emissions will rise as the economy recovers. The take up of electric vehicles has been very low, and the Committee recommends a full roll out of smarter choices and travel behaviour change programmes.
It would be a great relief for Government and policy makers if it were otherwise, but the reality is that tackling our car dependency is going to be crucial to achieving the 80% reduction.
A hard nut to crack
Experience has shown that persuading people to use their cars less is a particularly hard nut to crack. Over the past 50 years car use has become central and indispensible to the lives of the majority of UK citizens, and it is deeply embedded in many different aspects of the domestic economy, making it a very difficult behaviour to change.
Previous attempts to reduce car use have tended to focus on external factors, including pricing mechanisms such as the fuel duty escalator and congestion charging, and on incentivizing more sustainable travel behaviour by providing more accessible and affordable public transport.
An area which has received less attention is that of encouraging reduced car useby addressing internal factors such as habit, cognitive processes and social norms. It is in this context that the Behaviour Change Lab, which Greener Journeys is launching next week may bring some useful insights.
Nudging car drivers in the right direction
The Behaviour Change Lab pilot schemes attempt to tackle deeply engrained and habitual behaviour through applying some of the latest insights from behavioural economics in encouraging people to switch to buses. These schemes will be fully evaluated and it will be fascinating to see what results they yield and how these insights apply to reducing car use.
What we do know is that buses have a significant role to play in reducing congestion and CO2 emissions from transport. Recent research reveals that buses have the potential to reduce carbon emissions by as much as 75% in heavily congested areas. Buses also underpin the UK economy. Research by the University of Leeds reveals that bus commuters generate £64 billion in economic output.
So as Government and policy makers take stock next week, I hope that they will consider how to maximize opportunities for some of the most immediate and cost-effective means at our disposal of reducing carbon emissions and creating the conditions for sustainable economic growth.