Driving the global transition to zero emission transport

10 Nov 2021

A blog by Malachy Clarke, Public Affairs Manager at Friends of the Earth Scotland

To mark the COP26 Presidency Theme ‘Transport’, Malachy highlights the importance of sustainable transport in tackling climate change.


Transport emissions are Scotland’s single largest source of greenhouse gases, accounting for over 1/3rd of Scotland’s emissions. Road traffic makes up 69% of our transport emissions, 40% of which is private car use. In addition, air pollution from road transport leads to 2500 premature deaths in Scotland every year. Air pollution disproportionately affects low-income communities the most. Despite this, lower income communities are significantly less likely to drive. 97% of households with an annual income over £40,000 have at least one car. This compares to just 51% of households with an annual income of less than £6,000. There is no future where we meet our aims of limiting warming to 1.5c and continue business as usual in transport.

Many people view Electric Cars as the future of transport. Indeed, electric vehicles are an important part of reducing our climate change emissions and cutting local air pollution. But they are only part of the answer. If we replaced every petrol or diesel car with an electric one, congestion would be just as bad, we’d waste just as much space on car parking and roads, and people would still be killed in crashes. The production of electric vehicles and the degradation of electric vehicles tyres, brakes and internal machinery and the breakdown of the roads they drive on would continue to create particulate matter and continue to damage our health. This is not to mention the fact that electric vehicles will take a long time to phase into common usage. Banning the sale of new non-hybrid petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 is a welcome move but electric vehicles are expensive and charging points are not as prolific as they need to be. It would take a long time for electric cars to enter the secondary vehicle market and proliferate our streets in numbers anywhere close to those that would be needed to tackle the climate emergency. 

It is clear, the use of private cars must be reduced. Luckily, the Scottish Government agrees; and has committed to reducing car-km use by 20% by 2030. This is a mammoth task. One that requires the Scottish Government to buck a trend that has held true for 70 years as car usage has crept up and up. The only way to get people out of cars is to make public transport affordable (or ideally free), frequent and reliable. Without a robust public transport network we will be unable to remove our reliance on cars. 

When global delegates arrive in Glasgow in November they will find a city with little to no trains on a Sunday, a disorganised bus network and a severe lack of cycle infrastructure. While transport will be free for COP26 delegates, the rising costs of public transport will be borne by everyday citizens.  While this will make it easier for delegates to get around, and save them some money, it won’t truly reflect the state of public transport across the country. COP26 would have been an ideal time to roll out free public transport for all. An idea recommended by the Just Transition Commission, free public transport, is possible and has been trialed in cities across the world, Luxembourg recently began offering free public transport to its citizens.  Free transport for delegates but not for residents is not only unjust, it’s emblematic of the inequality embedded into our transport system. This must change if we are to move as many journeys as possible to public transport, walking and cycling, while modernising the transport fleet.

Bringing buses into public ownership and making them free at the point of use – like we do with health, education and other vital services – would be hugely significant in advancing our net zero aims. If we run our buses in the public interest, we can create a comprehensive network that takes cars off the road, reduces emissions and improves air quality. In October, there were promising announcements on cycle lanes in Glasgow and Edinburgh. We need every council to bring this level of ambition, to make sure that shorter journeys can be walked or cycled in comfort and safety. After all, safety concerns are consistently listed as the number one reason more people don’t cycle to work or school. The speed and volume of cars keeps potential cyclists off their bikes and forces them into their own motor vehicles or onto the pavement. By providing a robust, safe, comprehensive cycle network we can reduce the number of cars on the road and create a healthy safe environment for all.

Despite the punny title, we need to do the opposite of “drive” towards net-zero and instead ditch cars in favour of more sustainable, more active methods of transportation. COP26 should be the beginning of a transport revolution for Scotland. Free at the point of use travel with comprehensive, reliable transport networks run for passengers and the planet, not profit.


This blog is part of the LINK Thinks CoP26 series. Click here to read the series of blogs by LINK staff, members, Honorary Fellows and invited guests who highlight the COP26 presidency programme with a nature-climate twist.

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