A pedal-less COP26
To build a sustainable future, we need to focus more on how to increase cycling as a method of transport worldwide.
The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also referred to as COP26, took place between Oct. 31 and Nov. 12 in Glasgow. The event hosted many sub-events with various themes. Transport Day under COP26 took place on Nov. 10. However, there was one problem with regard to this long-awaited day as it focused primarily on electric vehicles. The agenda for the Transport Day of COP26 made no mention of any panel discussion related to active mobility including walking, cycling, and greater use of mass transit.
Around the world, governments and automakers are promoting electric vehicles as a key technology to curb oil use and fight climate change. While experts broadly agree that plug-in vehicles are a more climate-friendly option than traditional vehicles, they still have some environmental impacts, depending on how they’re charged and manufactured. I should also state here that adoption of this vehicle will take decades considering the barriers that lie before the three major categories, which are technology, finance and institution. And issues related to vehicles and batteries, operations and charging infrastructure present another set of barriers for the complete adoption of this technology. On the other hand, promoting active mobility and building trust in mass transit can give us quick results in terms of fighting climate change.
The recent research carried out by the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit shows that the daily mobility-related life cycle of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were 3.2 kg/CO2 per person, with car travel contributing 70% of this amount and cycling just 1%.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report pointed to active mobility as an important way to ensure a safe and sustainable world. Cycling has become a popular, resilient and reliable travel option during the coronavirus pandemic in cities around the globe. The implementation of emergent, or pop-up, bike lanes has received an overwhelming response since early 2020 and has also created a growing desire for safe and efficient bicycle infrastructure. Between March and July 2020, 394 cities, states and countries reported interventions that reallocated street space for people to cycle and walk more easily, directly and safely. This shift to cycling comes at a perfect time when cities have been making efforts to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. As an urban transport expert, I will drop this question here: if cycling has such a proven impact on reducing transport emissions, why is it not being taken seriously at COP26 by leaders, delegates, observers and journalists?
Why were electric cars the almost sole focus of delegates and leaders on Transport Day?
The answer is straightforward: electric vehicles are an innovation that aims to tackle climate change without the need for substantial change in current driving behavior. This development encourages people to continue using their own private vehicles. A report published in the journal Nature Sustainability estimates that an average electric car produced nearly 12 tons of carbon emissions while being manufactured. This is equivalent to around 15-1/2 years of electricity usage of an average U.K. family. And it is just for one car. Multiply that by many billions worldwide. The comfort and security experienced by one person takes up so much space on our planet.
We should know that even in the best scenario it will take decades at minimum to phase out the current fleet of internal combustion engine cars. We have a very simple and effective countermeasure to reduce transport emissions. In the EU, half of all car trips are shorter than 5 kilometers (3 miles). A similar situation exists in Istanbul as well. According to Moovit, an Israel-based transit planning app, the average distance of a single trip is 9 kilometers. And many people can commute these distances by biking. And each kilometer traveled by bike instead of a car immediately saves on average 150 grams of carbon dioxide emissions.
All those outcomes point out a single factor that can reshape the Transport Day of COP26. Instead of promoting electric cars, the delegates must talk about active mobility as a solution that will prove successful in the short term. And considering the “climate emergency situation” we are in right now; we do need a short-term and effective solution.
Matthew Baldwin is the EU coordinator for road safety and sustainable urban mobility. The Brussels-based Englishman is also the deputy director-general of the European Commission. With Baldwin's great efforts, a sentence on active mobility was added to the COP26 declaration on accelerating the transition to 100% zero-emission cars and vans.
Firstly, I would like to thank Mr. Baldwin. Now, here is the statement that was added to the declaration: "We recognize that alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport, as well as addressing the full value chain impacts from vehicle production, use and disposal."
Turkey also signed this declaration. On the website of COP26, alongside the governments, you can see all stakeholders including automakers, mobility platforms, operators, investors and financial institutes.
We need more heroes
Who cares about our planet and mitigating transport-related emissions more than the manufacturers of luxury cars? Electric cars were the industry’s hot topic at COP26 especially as many automakers have announced ambitious electrification plans for the coming years and have signed the declaration. But this excitement contrasts with a shocking reality: in 2019, internal combustion engines accounted for more than 90% of global sales of passenger cars. Those vehicles will be on the road for another 20 or 40 years. So, it is apparent that emissions from the transport sector will not be reduced fast enough. We need more cycling.
From my point of view, changing our way of life is our only chance at achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) goal. Well, as a transport expert, I can only encourage everyone to swiftly shift daily mobility needs to more sustainable transit options including cycling and walking.
You might say “easier said than done.” But we all need to acknowledge that this shift in lifestyle is possible.
In my case: I ride a bike from home to the office, market, gym and kindergarten. I have even biked to a doctor with my 3-year-old daughter on a rainy day.
At an individual level, it is possible and simple to fight against the climate crisis.