Policymakers must confront transport ‘taboos’ to meet climate goals — report

E&E News

Politicians need to address norms or taboos related to how people travel, and not just rely on technology improvements, in order to meet their carbon reduction goals for the transportation sector, according to a report released today.

“Basically, transport taboos are issues that are barriers to the implementation of sustainable transport policy, but they don’t want to be touched by policymakers because they constitute a political risk,” said Scott Cohen, senior lecturer at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom and co-author on the report. “They’re hot potatoes.”

“One of the key ideas behind it is if you violate a taboo, you’re basically violating a social norm, so you open yourself up to punishment by peers, powerful organizations and even the broader public, so it can hurt you at the ballot box,” he added.

Inaction has serious implications for the climate. Transport currently accounts for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. It’s also the fastest-growing source of emissions relative to other sources.

Globally, the number of passenger cars is expected to double by 2025 and the amount of air travel is expected to triple by 2050. According to the United Nations’ fifth assessment report on mitigation of climate change, without further action, transportation emissions could double by midcentury (ClimateWire, April 10).

New technologies such as biofuels, efficient engines and aerodynamic designs will play an important role in reducing damaging emissions from vehicles across the transport sector. But technological innovation alone won’t reduce carbon emissions to sustainable levels, and policymakers also need to address transport taboos.

‘Car free days’ in cities?

Taboos identified in the paper include society’s growing appetite for frequent, long-distance travel; the unfair relationship between mobility and income level; and the powerful voice of lobbyists and industry groups.

“The aviation and automobile industries work very hard in conjunction with lobbyists to give the impression that technology alone can solve the problem, which simply isn’t true,” Cohen said. A significant part of the solution lies in political decisionmaking.

In Germany, for instance, some opinion polls show that a slight majority of respondents favor a speed limit on the autobahn. Reducing speeds on the highway would also help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions because vehicle efficiency plummets at high speeds due to drag. And yet political parties are unwilling to touch the issue because of the outrage that would stem from car associations, producers and some drivers, Cohen said.

Limiting vehicle use in cities through a congestion fee or implementing “car free days” could also significantly reduce emissions. But these measures are rarely implemented because they might see a backlash from drivers, even though they might gain considerable support from other segments of the population.

Another taboo is that a small number of high-income people are responsible for the vast majority of overall travel and its associated emissions. In the United Kingdom, for instance, 61 percent of personal air travel emissions were produced by just 20 percent of the population. Still, there’s a reluctance to change the travel patterns of the highly mobile — a group that usually includes policymakers.

Dealing with ‘politically fractured issues’

Although the report focused on Europe, it’s also true that in the United States wealthy people travel more than lower-income people and are thus responsible for more transport-related emissions, Cohen said.

The problem with addressing these issues is that in both the U.S. and Europe there’s a general resistance to strong legislation. At the very least, policymakers are unlikely to act without strong evidence that any change they make will be publicly palatable.

“I think you have to show there’s strong public support for progressive actions as well. But all of that is difficult because a lot of these things are inconvenient truths for people,” Cohen said. “And I think they also — at least from my understanding of the U.S. — would be quite politically fractured issues as well.”

Transport experts around the world have been starting to address the behavioral element involved in reducing transportation emissions with varying degrees of success. In some cases, transport problems related to pollution and congestion had to reach a critical level before action took place (ClimateWire, July 25).

“The general consensus is that both driving and flying is very much bound up with people’s identities. They’re not always rational decisions, they’re emotional topics of discussion. And for the most part people aren’t willing to change voluntarily,” Cohen said. “That’s why we argue that stronger regulation is needed.”