Technology Won’t Save Us from the Climate Emergency

A recent report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found that emissions from road traffic in the UK have increased by 6% over the last three decades. As of 2017, emissions due to road traffic were around 118 million tonnes but have increased again in 2018. This data comes at a time when car and fuel efficiency has taken a huge step forward in an effort to reduce emissions and air pollution.

So why have emissions increased?

Whilst the efficiency of many of the UK’s road vehicles has increased, so has the number of trips we all make. Despite cars being much more efficient than they were in 1990, the total number of miles travelled each year in the UK rose from 255 billion in 1990 to 328 billion in 2018. As far as efficiency technology has gone in recent years, it hasn’t gone far enough to counter the increase in journeys we’re all taking.

This behaviour has been observed in many areas of society. Where we increase the efficiency of a product or service, we increase its usage. This nullifies the advance in efficiency but still leaves us looking for further efficiency.

Car usage is just one example of this constant need to become more efficient with what we use. Sticking with road travel, take the widening of motorways for example. Governments and local councils widen roads or upgrade them to smart motorways in an attempt to reduce traffic and improve the efficiency of journey times. However, you only need to look at the 12-lane Katy Freeway in Houston to know that it does little to improve journey time!

Reports like this by the ONS question the role of technology in solving the climate emergency. Fuel and engine efficiency have been marketed as solutions to the climate emergency — a way for us to all ‘do our bit’ — yet all we’re doing is polluting the environment more efficiently.

Solving the Climate Emergency Requires Behavioural Change

In the modern-day, we continue to strive for efficiency even though we should be well aware that increased efficiency leads to increased usage. Even if we transition from petrol to electric-powered cars there will still be traffic and there will still be air pollution. We’ll feel like we’re doing the right thing because we’re no longer needing to use fossil fuels to power our cars, but we’ll be doing very little to make the changes needed to avoid the worst climate emergency scenarios.

When it comes to transport, we need to be getting cars off the road and looking towards alternative forms of transport. That requires huge systemic and behavioural change at all levels. At the bottom, we must make that choice to take the bus, cycle or walk to our destination instead of driving everywhere. At the top, we must make alternative forms of travel much more accessible to more of the population as well as make it much more affordable.

Incentive schemes for energy-efficient technologies that only add to that demand and end up having no effect in reducing the pollution they attempt to mitigate must also be stopped. For example, the UK Government is offering a grant equal to 35% of the cost price of an electric car (up to the cost of £10,000) in an attempt to encourage people to switch to electric vehicles. I’m a big fan of electric vehicles but, whilst they solve the problem of fossil fuels powering vehicles, they still contribute to poor air quality and do nothing to solve traffic issues.

Instead, governments should be looking to further subsidise the use of public transport or making it easier and safer for us to cycle or walk to our destinations. In the UK, rail fares have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation, pricing many out from using it. In 2018, whilst the distance travelled grew, the number of journeys taken declined across the UK as the number of season tickets dropped. The UK Government should be looking for ways to encourage more rail users, and cutting the cost of tickets is one important way this can be done!

Trains are becoming increasingly unaffordable for many

Changes we make as individuals are small in comparison to the countries and companies that emit huge volumes of greenhouse gases, but they are still very important in tackling the climate emergency. The changes in behaviour we make will be very important in reducing our carbon emissions and help create a cleaner, healthier planet to live on. To help us make the changes needed, we need help from government and industry. Chasing efficiency is a vicious cycle — subsidies and incentives should be in place to encourage us to make the meaningful changes required. As we get closer to the warming limit put in place at the Paris Agreement, the need for this behaviour change becomes increasingly paramount and it is time that we all must act.

Originally published at on October 2, 2019.

| Founder of | Masters in Sustainable Development | Interested in all things sustainable |

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