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Lockdown has transformed urban areas. Cities are quieter, air is cleaner and more people are walking or cycling around their neighbourhoods. The pandemic has had tough consequences for many, but it has also shown the potential positive environmental impact of making a rapid transition to low-carbon transport and eliminating reliance on fossil fuels.

Air pollution, which kills more people globally than smoking, contributes to almost 64,000 deaths a year in the UK.

Particulate matter — such as tiny particles of soot, smoke, dust or allergens — is released into the air as a result of transportation or the burning of fossil fuels for energy. These particles can then be breathed deeply into the lungs, penetrate the bloodstream and cause health problems such as increased risk of stroke, heart disease, chronic lung disease and acute respiratory infections.

According to Asthma UK, asthma is exacerbated by poor air quality in about two-thirds of sufferers because pollution particles can irritate the airways, putting them at greater risk of an asthma attack.

“Vehicles without tailpipes leave much less pollution in the air, so electrification will have direct and immediate health benefits for the population; that’s guaranteed,” explains Julian Allwood, professor of engineering and the environment at the University of Cambridge.

“But air pollution won’t be driven to zero, because some [of it] results from particulates from brakes and fragments of rubber coming off tyres.”

The transport sector is responsible for 28 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, a figure that has dropped by only 3 per cent since 1990. Most emissions from petrol cars comprise carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, while diesel cars emit particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, which are particularly bad for air quality.

In order to meet global warming targets scientists say that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 7.6 per cent every year. That reduction will come primarily via green tech, renewable “clean” energy production and electrification.

Should warming increase beyond the target of 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, the planet risks passing crucial tipping points, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has advised. This could result in social collapse and irreversible damage to natural ecosystems, from widespread sea level rise to more extreme heatwaves and mass extinctions.

To stay within the 1.5˚C limit, we urgently need to reduce consumption and adapt the ways in which we travel and produce energy. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change advises reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 — but to do that, carbon emissions worldwide need to fall by half by 2030. Yet global emissions continue to rise.

“If we don’t rapidly curtail emissions, we won’t be able to cope with the consequences,” warns Allwood. “We have almost completely switched from coal to gas-powered electricity generation, which reduces emissions, but meanwhile our cars have been getting heavier, with increasing internal temperatures; we’re also buying more stuff and constructing more buildings.”

As vehicles get heavier they need more energy to get moving, and therefore more fuel will be burnt during transit, resulting in greater emissions.

Without significant change, the net zero target will remain out of reach, Allwood notes. But is the necessary behavioural change possible? Allwood thinks the pandemic provides a benchmark. “Any step-change required to mitigate climate change would never be as painful as the loss of social contact we’re experiencing,” he says.

Ellie Grebenik, senior programme manager for the social enterprise Energy Saving Trust, argues that revolutionising the transport sector needs to be a priority. “We currently live in a very car-centric society,” she says. “However by 2030, people will need to really think about how they’re travelling. A more integrated transport system is crucial.”

Right now we can choose to travel less and use the mode of transport that is most convenient, reliable, affordable, and above all, low-carbon.

Grebenik believes that some key learnings, particularly around business travel, will come from lockdown. “For many office workers, the pandemic has opened up new ways of working from home and using technology such as video-conferencing that results in huge reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and particulate matter.”

A smart grid will be crucial to making a smooth transition to electrification, and that starts with smart meters. Once the National Grid knows exactly where and when peak demands for electricity exist, it can tailor renewable supply to meet those needs more effectively.

Electrification also opens up options to store electricity in car batteries that could be charged in the middle of the night when electricity is cheaper and more easily available from renewables, for example, and then fed back into the home during peak times in the day if the car isn’t being used.

As Grebenik states: “You’re only as clean as the electricity you put into your vehicle; ideally it should come from renewable sources.”

Consumers can choose a green energy tariff or a renewable provider that solely sources from wind turbines and solar farms: examples include Ecotricity, Good Energy and Octopus Energy.

Last year, renewable sources provided more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time in the UK, but despite energy being decarbonised, the transport sector still has a long way to go, according to Leo Murray, director of the action charity Possible. “Our efforts fall a long way short of what this crisis requires. It’s so important that politicians honour their commitments on this issue,” he says.

Murray worries about long-term trends, such as an increase in the number of miles being driven and the number of cars on the road.

“We need to speed up electrification, but we also need fewer vehicles being driven to reduce energy demand,” he adds, referring to the energy and carbon emissions from manufacturing vehicles.

The sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans in the UK is due to end by 2035 at the latest, or “preferably earlier”, according to the Department for Transport.

Allowing for old cars to wear out, by 2050 there should be no non-electric cars on the road, explains Allwood. “All European car manufacturers have stopped developing new combustion engines, so progress is definitely accelerating as we approach 2030.”

Beyond the UK, low-carbon travel is being pioneered in different ways. The Italian city of Milan has reallocated 35km of streets to prioritise cycling and walking in a rapid citywide scheme to reduce car use. Luxembourg recently became the first country to make public transport free when it abolished all tickets for trains, trams and buses.

As part of Copenhagen’s ambitious aims to become carbon neutral by 2025, buses are switching to electric and even the boats are solar-powered. Giulio Ferrini, head of built environment at the walking and cycling charity Sustrans in London, explains what happens when we rely on our cars less. “Air quality increases in low traffic neighbourhoods, and once streets become quieter and safer, more people start to socialise, play outdoors and engage in active travel such as walking or cycling.”

Once car numbers decrease, there’s scope for further environmental benefits such as tree-planting and development of more green spaces. Planters installed to block roads and filter traffic can be used to grow vegetables or wildlife-friendly plants that encourage pollinators such as bees. “This small-scale ‘rewilding’ or restoration promotes biodiversity and results in healthier ecosystems, plus sustainable urban drainage solutions lower the risk of flooding. Retrofitting with more natural solutions will make us more resilient to the global climate emergency,” adds Ferrini. “Opening up our streets to people is a big piece of the future transport puzzle.”

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