Transitioning to low-carbon transport must address social justice issues alongside emissions reductions

Dr Mari Martiskainen, Senior Research Fellow at SPRU and Equity and Justice Theme lead for the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), and Dr Max Lacey-Barnacle, Research Fellow in Energy Justice at SPRU, explain why we must think beyond reducing emissions to ensure no one is left behind in the transition to low-carbon transport.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been calls to re-think and re-design our personal transport system. Many people, motivated by a fear of infection, have opted for cars instead of public transport, and sales of bicycles have peaked.

Before the pandemic, we were already witnessing the growth of low-carbon transport, with the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the world’s roads, for example, increasing from 17,000 in 2010 to 7.2 million in 2019 – though research has found EVs are not the silver bullet to solve transport emissions.

E-bikes, meanwhile, could cut CO2 emissions by up to 50% in England (approximately 30 million tonnes a year) if people used them to replace as much of their car travel as they are able to.

With the arrival of Covid-19 and social distancing, we’ve seen a rapid increase in the number of people walking and cycling, forms of low-emission active travel which both bring added health benefits.

The UK Government has committed to investing £2 billion in active travel and promised an updated Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy this year. Pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements and cycle and bus-only corridors are becoming familiar sights as local authorities adapt transport infrastructure to reflect the ‘new normal’ and lay the foundations for permanent change.

We’ll need all these means of greener and healthier travel in our move towards a net-zero carbon society. But, if we are to build a socially and environmentally sustainable world, we also need to consider who can access them and how the technologies they require are made.

Transport poverty and why green transport design must be inclusive

In recent years, research has started to highlight ‘transport poverty’. This can be understood as the inability to afford or access necessary transport services.

Someone experiencing transport poverty may, for example, be unable to afford essential transport costs, or they may live far away from public transport such as buses and trains, having to rely on expensive private cars. This in turn could mean having to make choices in other areas of their life, such as how much energy to use at home.

Being in transport poverty restricts people’s ability to travel, for example, for work, school, caring duties, healthcare, and hobbies – it therefore directly impacts their ability to fully participate in society.

In addition, certain communities may be more at risk of transport poverty. For example, those living in rural and peri-rural communities may be more likely to encounter high transport costs due to a lack of convenient alternatives to cars. Those with pre-existing health and mobility issues, meanwhile, may also be more affected, for example by limited access to active travel options.

As we move towards green transport, we therefore need to acknowledge these inequalities and begin tackling them.

From local to global – a whole systems approach

A fair and equitable move to low-carbon transport also requires considering how green transport technologies are made.

We must ensure, for example, that certain countries do not form a ‘green elite’, with little thought given to the fact that many of the materials and minerals for low-carbon technologies like EV batteries often come from polluting mines that damage their local environment. Many such mines have also been shown to have poor working conditions which often exploit vulnerable workers, especially women and children, in the least economically developed countries.

A low-carbon transport system thus needs a whole systems approach that considers the whole supply chain, from materials and working conditions, to infrastructure and practices.

This means, at first, recognising those that are vulnerable. For example, a new EV purchased in the UK may be directly linked to child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where many children are used to mine for cobalt, an essential component of lithium ion batteries in EVs.

It also means designing transport systems that are accessible and affordable to all. For example, those with mobility issues may not be able to access the latest bike lanes built in our cities and not everyone can afford an EV or have the space to store a bike. This is where an increase in accessible and affordable low-carbon public transport, such as electric bus networks and new train and tram systems, can be essential to addressing issues of equity in the transition to a net-zero society.

Thus, the first step to creating a truly equal net-zero society is to acknowledge that issues such as transport poverty exist, and that some of our low-carbon transport options connect to injustices across the world.

While it is challenging, we must begin to recognise the inequalities in accessibility and affordability of transport systems, alongside acknowledging the whole-systems injustices a growing demand for new low-carbon technologies may create. Without this, low-carbon transport systems may risk increasing poverty and inequality.

Drawing upon a justice oriented lens and energy justice principles, we can begin to unravel the injustices embedded in low-carbon transport systems and find ways in which justice can be achieved.

Find out more about the Fuel and Transport Poverty in the UK’s Energy Transition (FAIR) project on the CREDS website.

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