In the days and weeks following the global lockdowns due to COVID-19, reports emerged on plunging carbon emissions and better air quality. The hashtag #BuildBackBetter quickly emerged as communities and governments started thinking about how to reconfigure essential travel infrastructure in a rapidly changing world. But as lockdown restrictions have eased, to varying levels, emissions have begun to rise again. In this blog, Dr Cristina Temenos, from the Manchester Urban Institute and the Department of Geography, outlines suggestions to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector.

The need to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector isn’t a new idea. Longstanding political debates surrounding efficiency, cost, and lifestyle change have long held that transition to low carbon technologies, planning for low carbon futures, and implementing meaningful change must happen slowly over time. But COVID-19 has shown us that the only barrier to efficient low-carbon transition is political will. For example, municipalities in Greater Manchester and other cities in the UK have rapidly innovated car-free streets and segregated cycle lanes. Yet there has been debate about whether these interventions should remain permanent. So, how do governments build back better for the long-term?

This is a question my research team and I have been examining since 2014. Our Living in the Mobility Transition project, led by Professor Tim Cresswell and Professor Peter Adey, looked at policies and government initiatives to transfer to low-carbon ways of moving across 14 countries: United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, The Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Singapore, South Korea, and New Zealand. We found that while there is no ‘ideal low-carbon mobility transition policy’, there are policy practices that can help guide decision-makers in constructing effective policies. I introduce these practices below, and more details can be found in our policy brief.

Importance of social context

A mobility transition is not straightforwardly a transport technology transition. Focusing on the technologies with little regard for the social context is likely to result in full or partial failure. At a macro level, the most straightforward approach to reducing carbon emissions from transport is to: a) reduce or eliminate the need to travel and b) decrease the length of necessary trips. An approach to mobility transitions informed by work on the social context and meaning of mobility and sensitive to local and national context is most likely to include as many stakeholders as possible and have a greater chance of success.

It is important to consider who policies work for. While it is possible to say that carbon tax policies, for instance, are likely to result in reduced carbon emissions, it is also clear that without redistribution, such a policy is socially regressive and likely to disproportionately impact impoverished, marginalised and, particularly, rural communities. Similarly, the promotion of a Bus Rapid Transit system may well reduce carbon emissions in the city but is far from ideal if it is inaccessible to the mobility disabled. More than that, by being inaccessible it actually contributes to the production of disability. One way to think through this issue is to produce transition policies in bundles. A carbon tax, for instance, could be coupled with redistribution policies that actively assist the impoverished and marginalised populations who disproportionately bear the brunt of the costs.

While the absolute reduction in carbon emissions is one important measure, it is necessary to consider other possible impacts such as the social ones noted above. The widespread adoption of automated electric vehicles, for instance, could result in unsustainable increases on power production. Similarly, the sudden possibility of cars with no inhabitants could increase congestion in an alarming way as cars will be travelling with no driver or passengers.

Strategic alignment and complexities

Policymakers need to consider the strategic alignment of transition policies at different scales. They should ask in what ways will transition policy be more or less likely to fail given their nesting within often contradictory scales and times of policymaking? The most significant mismatch of policy at different scales and times of policymaking occurred when medium- to long-term environmental transition concerns were in contradiction to shorter-term economic goals of growth and profitability.

It is also important to avoid overly simplistic, reductive or universalist understandings of mobile people. Transport planning has traditionally assumed a universal human being as the typical mobile subject. Commuters have been imagined as though they have no gender, passengers have been entered into flow models as seemingly universal subjects, and issues of disability and accessibility have not been included in consideration of transition. In reality, any effective transition policy must account for the diversity of human bodies and subjects and their different needs.

Separating mobility and economic growth

There is a danger of top-down policies influenced primarily by the private sector telling citizens how to move based on market logics. Even the language used can alienate potential allies by creating meanings for mobility that are not aligned with the needs and desires of everyday life. Policymakers need to become policy-enablers who encourage and stimulate local organisations, coalitions and individuals in community participation for mobility transition.  Rather than being aligned with the dominant narrative of economic growth, mobility needs to become aligned with notions of citizenship and common good.

Of all the tensions that lead to transition failure that we have identified, this is the most frequent. As long as mobility and economic growth are conceptually and culturally linked then transition policies can never reach their full potential. Low-carbon mobility transitions are often added on as afterthoughts to economic purposes. There are linked-up solutions that start from a position of the public good that complement our findings. The New Green Deal, which is focused on finding just transitions that work for people and society, and New Municipalism, which has seen success in places as diverse as Barcelona in Spain to Preston in the UK, are two such examples. Policy practices such as those we present in our brief are important frameworks for thinking about ways we can build back better post-carbon futures.


Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Energy is one of The University of Manchester’s research beacons. Our energy and climate change researchers are at the forefront of the energy transition, collaborating with governments, businesses and institutions to develop innovative, real world solutions to drive a green recovery and help achieve next zero. As the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate summit, read our collection of blogs on climate change for more evidence-based policy solutions.