Decarbonising transport Over the last 50 years, the transport of people, goods and information have all increased exponentially, and this reflects the societal and economic benefits of ever growing levels of mobility. Transport has become an important sector of the global economy in its own right, and it forms an essential function in maintaining the interconnectivity of the globalised World. There are also important feedback effects between transport and economic development, where high quality transport infrastructure can promote economic growth if other conditions are also positive (Banister and Berechman, 2000).
Cheap natural resources have encouraged people, firms and others globally to benefit from the opportunities to travel further and at a lower cost, with average daily distances travelled in developed countries now exceeding 100 km per person (Schäfer et al., 2009). But transport is totally dependent on oil and in the EU it now accounts for over 71% of all oil used (EU, 2011), and as oil prices continue to rise (currently over $120 per barrel of Brent Crude), the need to improve efficiency becomes clear. This imperative is reinforced by the potential instability in the sourcing of oil, price volatility, high growth levels of demand (in particular from the Far East), and in the debates over the future of oil (OPEC, 2009).
In addition, the energy input is directly linked to the amount of carbon emitted from transport, and there is no technology currently available to reduce the amount of carbon produced by burning one litre of fuel. Transport now contributes about 25% of global CO2 (IEA, 2011). Transport is the only major sector of the economy where emissions continue to grow, as the increased demand for travel outweighs the technological gains. The growth in oil consumption in transport (1973-2010) has exceeded 110% (IEA, 2011), and the growth in CO2 emissions from transport have increased by 44% (1973-2007) (IEA, 2009). There have been some efficiency gains, but the overall trend is still strongly upwards, with little sign of change in the near future. To achieve reductions in energy consumption and emissions levels in transport, it is essential that far greater efficiency and technological innovation become the twin foci of a leaner, cleaner transport industry, as high prices and resource depletion mean that cheap energy for transport is no longer a reality. There is agreement over the need for substantial decarbonisation of the transport sector, but the effectiveness of conventional policy measures and thinking seem to be limited, whether “hard” or “soft” measures have been applied.
With respect to “hard” measures, the prices of fuels are at historically high levels, yet demand seems to be inelastic, as transport is seen to be an essential activity. Transport (aviation) has now joined the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (2012), but the price of carbon is currently at historic low levels (€7 per tonne of CO2, in May 2012). When the market develops the carbon credits are likely to be bought by the airlines and the cost passed onto travellers, and this may have some impact on demand. There is some evidence that ‘hard’ regulatory measures have contributed to an improvement in average energy efficiency of the car vehicle fleet. European New Car CO2 Regulation (EC443/2009) has mandated sales weighted average CO2 reductions from motor manufacturers. UK average new car CO2 emissions fell 4.2% in 2011 and it has fallen by over 23% since 2000, with new cars now being 18.0% cleaner than UK average. Cars producing less than 130gCO2/km now account for almost half the 2011 market – 46.8%, as compared with 10.6% in 2007 (SMMT, 2012). However, increases in travel demand have meant that little change has been observed in terms of overall energy consumption. ‘Soft’ measures, such as information programmes and awareness raising schemes, seem only to influence changes in behaviour at the margins or over small geographical and temporal scales of application (Cairns et al., 2008).
Two possible explanations for the muted effects of most hard and soft measures might be that individuals and firms are insensitive to pricing and other measures such as information, when it comes to transport decisions. This explanation is counter to the well-established economic principles of elasticities and rational behaviour. Alternatively, it could be argued that our understanding of the behaviour of individuals and firms is incomplete, and that there are other social and cultural factors that may be as (or more) influential than the conventional economic factors that are central to current understandings of behavioural change. Underlying both explanations are issues such as path dependence and rebound effects, both of which reflect on our understanding of governance and transport. The current organisational and institutional structures may be inappropriate when it comes to addressing climate change and transport, as transport is seen to be instrumental in maintaining and enhancing the global economy, rather than contributing to the need to keep within the environmental carrying capacity of the planet (Meadows et al., 2006).
This may also explain the preference for technological solutions, as this would allow the current and future patterns of activity to continue, and continue to grow, but with less energy intensity. Yet the evidence from the recent past is that even though energy efficiency in transport has improved, this has been more than outweighed by the increases in travel. Technological efficiency needs to be matched by a more fundamental understanding of the underlying social and cultural processes of behavioural change so that less energy and carbon lifestyles can evolve. As suggested elsewhere (Banister et al., 2011), a full range of alternatives need to be mobilised in addressing the carbon intensity of existing transport systems, including the potential to reduce travel demand. Measures would include effective pricing of CO2consumption, participatory awareness and information programmes, and possible new unconventional instruments, such as bans on commercial advertising and glamorisation of high CO2 vehicles and certain types of carbon intensive travel in urban areas.
The papers in this Special Section of the Journal of Transport Geography extend the debate over the reasons why it has been so difficult to reduce energy use and carbon emissions in the transport sector. It is not to suggest that the approaches being used are wrong, but that they only explain part of the story, and that there are new contributions that the social sciences can make to the understanding of travel behaviour that go beyond technological optimism and rationality as understood in neoclassical economics. It is in this spirit that the papers in this Special Section address some of the means by which social sciences can contribute centrally to our understanding of behaviour, and implicitly to enhance our reasoning as to why reductions in energy use in transport are so difficult to achieve, and certainly the scale of change that is required to meet the challenging targets set for global CO2 reduction. Implicitly, the approaches brought together here should also help refocus thinking so that policy intervention in these areas can be made more effective in terms of the types of intervention that might be most appropriate, and to the effectiveness and permanency of those interventions.