Time to stop the endless growth of transport?

By Olaf Merk

A record heatwave last week confronted many Europeans with the reality of extreme weather events. Dangerously hot temperatures, extreme droughts, wildfires, melting glaciers, losses of homes, biodiversity and human lives. The immediate questions took up a lot of attention: how to avoid people from dying from the heat, where to evacuate residents from burning areas, how to extinguish the fires? But the real question is of course: how can we avoid this happening again?

Europe feels the heat: from Portugal to the UK, temperature records were slashed last week

The answer is depressing: we cannot. Whatever we do, things will first get much worse. Past greenhouse gas emissions have locked us into a pathway of global temperature rise that we cannot avoid, even if we were to cut emissions drastically. For most people, this was probably one of the coolest summers of the rest of their life. This makes it even more urgent to reduce emissions as quickly as possible. And here, the responses from policy makers have so far been hopelessly underwhelming.

Transport ministers generally like to build new infrastructure. Transport policies are often simply lists of new transport links and facilities, be it roads, railways, airports or something else. Even if many policy makers accept the need to decarbonise transport, the solutions are almost exclusively geared towards new investments: green technologies, alternative fuels, electrification, charging and refuelling infrastructure. Undoubtedly these are important, but most of these projects will only lead to substantial emission reductions in a decade – or later. What if we do not have time? What if we actually need much steeper reductions to make sure that things will just get somewhat worse, instead of apocalyptically worse?

Paradigm shift

A lot of consumption – especially in developed economies – is conspicuous, frivolous and non-essential. This is also true for the consumption of transport. Taking climate change seriously implies stopping to facilitate transport growth categorically, and instead introducing measures that reduce the demand for transport now, in particular the polluting and non-essential types of transport. In other words, a paradigm shift. This is even more relevant in the context of the looming energy crisis, related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If we need to ration energy and transport demand, which types of transport could we do without? I have my own list of transport examples that I think should be strongly discouraged or banned, but my list is not really the point. The point is that transport policy makers must start doing this exercise – which types of transport do they want to limit – and do it quickly.

The Spanish Minister of Consumer Affairs Alberto Garzón wrote in a tweet on the recent heat wave that hit his country: “The consequences of climate change are already here. The fetichism of endless economic growth must end to preserve life”. The time has also come to stop the fetichism of endless transport growth.

Olaf Merk is Ports and Shipping Project Manager at the International Transport Forum (ITF)

See more ITF work on Decarbonising Transport, including the Transport Climate Action Directory: an online database of transport CO2 reduction policy measures

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