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Travel Freedom vs Climate Breakdown

Sean Goulding Carroll

March 6, 2022.

It’s understandable that the steady stream of horrors from Ukraine commands the global media’s attention – the conflict is immediate, shocking, and requires urgent action. Disturbing images of destroyed homes, dead bodies, and mass graves have sent shockwaves across the West.

Above - Airports may become permanently free of crowds if some people get their way.

Kevan James

However, this article is not about Ukraine or the renewed calls for an immediate ban on fossil fuel imports from Russia. It is about another unfolding catastrophe, one that has struggled to generate the same attention. Its horrors are sporadic and often dismissed, its impact is damning but slow-moving, and the rhetoric of catastrophe surrounding it seems for many to be overblown.

Climate change remains an existential threat to humanity. Its impacts will drastically shape our future, increasing natural catastrophes, famine, and mass migration. The latest section of the IPCC report, released on Monday (4 April) and largely overshadowed by Russia’s war, outlines the science and steps humanity must take to ensure the Earth remains liveable.

At this stage, the average global temperature will inevitably rise – our carbon-intensive societies have ensured that. But this rise can be limited to 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius if emissions peak by 2025 and continue to fall, with net-zero reached by 2050. This is a big ask, with experts split over its feasibility. The most pressing need remains to get off high-polluting fossil fuels. So far, the shift away from gas and oil has been underwhelming, though ironically, the barbaric war in Ukraine has acted as something of a wake-up call.

But what of transport? The notoriously difficult to decarbonise sector has seen emissions rise as other sectors’ have fallen. The IPCC report recommendations include a rapid shift to electric vehicles, the use of synthetic fuels and biofuels in the difficult to electrify aviation and maritime sectors, and the deployment of battery technology for trucks and trains. However, the chief recommendation is the most difficult to implement – reducing demand.

Can governments really reduce demand for travel, along with the freedom of people to do so, by decree?

Kevan James

Essentially, this means travelling less. Less flying. Less driving. Fewer trucks on the road. Here, we find the disconnect between an acceptance that we are in a climate crisis and a culture predicated on growth and consumption.

Transport is portrayed (particularly in advertisements) as inextricably linked with freedom. Any attempts to reduce transport freedom – to tell people that they must leave the car at home or that there will be a steep levy on frequent flyers – is likely to meet resistance. Politicians hoping to be re-elected may be reluctant to curb constituents’ transport options.

So, what can be done? Perhaps a good place to start is in our cities.

Urban areas account for around two-thirds of the bloc’s emissions and are where most Europeans now live, with the continent set to become increasingly urbanised. That makes them ideal arenas for change.

Persuading more people on to already overcrowded public transport systems may prove more difficult than some think.

Kevan James

Reallocating road space towards so-called “active travel” modes – walking and cycling – can make it easier for people to choose lower carbon means of getting around. Expanding affordable public transport can make urban car usage largely obsolete. And pedestrianising previously car-clogged roads can transform a city from an obstacle to traverse to a placid area to enjoy.

Of course, doing so will require political courage and an open conversation with city dwellers. But the reality is that unless climate breakdown is kept in check, travel freedom will be unceremoniously curtailed for us.

© Sean Goulding Carroll / Euractive News 2022

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