In 2020, globally, only one in 50 new cars was electric. Even if every new car coming out of factories today was electric, it would still take 15 to 20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel-powered car fleet.
The reductions in greenhouse gas and particulate emissions from replacing all those heat engines with low-carbon alternatives won’t be fast enough to make a difference in the few years we have left.
To tackle the climate and air pollution crises, all motorized transport, especially private cars, must be reduced as quickly as possible.
However, by focusing only on electric vehicles, we are slowing down the race towards a drastic reduction in emissions.
Electric, but not “zero carbon”
Part of the reason is that electric cars aren’t truly ‘zero carbon’ – extracting the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity to run them produce emissions.
Transport is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise: this because of its high use of fossil fuels and its dependence on carbon-intensive infrastructure – such as roads, airports and vehicles. themselves – and also how it accommodates car-dependent lifestyles.
One way to reduce transport-related emissions – relatively quickly and potentially on a global scale – is to swap the car for cycling, e-biking and walking – these so-called “active” modes of travel.
Measuring the impact of active travel
Active modes of transport are cheaper, healthier, less harmful to the environment and do not clutter the streets of often saturated cities.
But exactly how many carbon emissions can they save us on a daily basis? And what is their role in reducing overall emissions from the transport sector?
In a new study published in April 2021, my colleagues and I identified that people who walk or cycle have a lower carbon footprint during their daily trips, especially in the city.
One of the important points of our work concerns the fact that if walking and cycling sometimes supplement motorized travel (instead of replacing it), a greater number of people adopting active modes of travel would reduce emissions. carbon emissions from transport on a daily basis, on a trip-by-trip basis.
84% less emissions for bicycles
We followed around 4,000 people, living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Vienna, Orebro, Rome and Zurich. For two years, our participants filled out some 10,000 travel diaries. They recorded all their daily trips there: going to work by train, taking the children to school by car, taking the bus, etc.
For each trip, we calculated the carbon footprint.
One result particularly struck us: people who traveled daily by bicycle emitted 84% less carbon than the others.
We also found that for a person switching from car to bike just one day a week, the reduction in their carbon footprint reached 3.2 kg of CO2 ; this is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car traveling 10 km, a serving of lamb or chocolate or sending 800 e-mails.
10 times more fuel efficient than an electric car
When we compared the life cycle of each mode of travel – taking into account the carbon emissions generated for its manufacture, its supply and its fuel consumption – we found that the emissions associated with cycling can be 30 times lower and more , for each trip, to those associated with driving a fossil fuel car; and about ten times lower than those associated with driving an electric car.
We also estimate that city dwellers who switch from car to bike for just one trip per day reduce their carbon footprint by around half a ton of CO2 over one year; they thus save the equivalent of the emissions of one vol aller from London to New York.
If only one in five city dwellers permanently changed their travel behavior in this way over the next few years, we estimate that this would reduce emissions from all car travel in Europe by around 8%.
Lessons from the pandemic
Nearly half of the drop in daily CO₂ emissions seen during global lockdowns in 2020 comes from reductions in transport-related emissions.
The pandemic has forced countries around the world to adapt to reduce the spread of the virus. In the UK, walking and cycling were the big winners, with a 20% increase in the number of people walking regularly and an increase in the number of cyclists of 9% on weekdays and 58% on weekends compared to compared to pre-pandemic levels. And this, although cyclists are very likely to work from home.
Active commuting offered an alternative to the car while maintaining social distancing. They have kept people safe during the pandemic and could help reduce emissions as isolation is eased; especially since the high price of some electric vehicles is likely to discourage many potential buyers.
So the race is on. Active travel can contribute to the fight against the climate emergency further upstream than electric vehicles, while offering affordable, reliable, clean, healthy means of transport… and reducing traffic jams.