Electric car “obsession” to see Net Zero goals missed, writes Oxford Uni Transport Professor

The Associate Professor at Oxford’s Transport, Energy & Environment, Transport Studies Unit, Christian Brand has warned that “obsessing over the electric car is impeding the race to Net Zero” and has simultaneously called for active travel provision to be the focal point of reducing transport emissions; the UK’s heaviest polluter.

There is no feasible way the transition to electric cars can take place fast enough within the window “we can spare – the next five years,” writes Brand. It is estimated that it will take three to four times that period of time for a complete transition of the world’s fossil fuel car fleet.

“Tackling the climate and air pollution requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible,” he writes.

This week the UK Government has instead pledged to go full steam on a plan that will emphasise delivery of a £27Bn road building programme, alongside a drive to deliver “mass ownership of zero emission cars and vans by 2035.” A subsidy is available for the purchase of an electric car, which is hoped to speed up the process, but as yet the same cannot be said for personal electric bike sales, nor cycle sales.

This strategy, an MP-backed Think Tank has revealed, will lock in ten million more cars on British roads at any given time by 2050. The road building programme is currently under scrutiny in the High Court, with the plans believed to be in breach of climate commitments.

“It won’t stop us driving,” said Transport Minister Grant Shapps this week when delivering the Government’s Transport Decarbonisation plan, at the same time flagging that Nissan and Vauxhall have just pledged huge investment into UK-based electric car plants.

“Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions. This is partly because electric cars are not truly zero-carbon. Mining the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity they need for fuel produces emissions,” writes Grant.

It is the timescales of delivery that is crucial to Net Zero goals, however, and on that point the Professor says that active travel can make the fastest impact. Emissions from cycling and even electric bikes can be ten times lower than driving, according to research from the university published in Science Direct.

“Strikingly, the carbon footprint for daily travel is up to 84% smaller for people who walk or cycle than for people who use other modes of transport,” says Grant on the findings, adding that shifting from car to bike one day a week saves half a tonne of Co2 from the atmosphere per annum.

The £2 billion pledged for both walking and cycling combined, Shapps says, will deliver 300 schemes, which falls short of a single project for each of England’s 343 local authorities.

It is estimated that each kilometre of safe cycling infrastructure – found to be the single greatest factor in stimulating cycling levels – costs £1.45 million. If the £2 billion were spent solely on this infrastructure, 1,379 kilometres could be delivered in one direction only. The budget is however covering everything from delivering Bikeability for kids, the Bike Repair Voucher scheme (stopped at 80% delivered), walking schemes, bike parking, the Emergency Active Travel funding and much more.

On this vitally important note the professor writes: “What deters many people from cycling or e-biking is safety. Accidents rates for cyclists are still considerably higher than, say, for car drivers (although accident rates for motorbikes are even worse). Therefore, an important prerequisite for cycling is the availability of safe cycling infrastructure, including segregated cycling lanes.

“Cities urgently need to create (more) safe cycling networks or free up some streets altogether for cycling and walking only. A recent German study using bicycle counters in 106 European cities showed that the 20 cities that had considerably increased their cycling network (on average by 11.5 km) during the COVID-19 pandemic and this saw an increase in cycling of 11%-40%, compared to those that did not.”