By 2020, globally, only one in 50 new cars was electric. Even if every new car that leaves the factory today was electric, it would still take 15 to 20 years to replace the world’s fleet of fossil fuel cars.
The reductions in greenhouse gas and particulate emissions from replacing all these heat engines with low-carbon alternatives will not be fast enough to make a difference in the few years we have left.
To address climate and air pollution crises, all motorized transport, especially private cars, must be reduced as quickly as possible.
However, by focusing solely on electric vehicles, we are slowing the race to dramatically reduce emissions.
Electric, but not “zero carbon”
Part of the reason is that electric cars are not truly ‘zero carbon’ – extracting the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity to run them produces emissions.
Transport is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise: this is because of its high use of fossil fuels and its reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure – such as roads, airports and vehicles – and also because it accommodates car-dependent lifestyles.
One way to reduce transport-related emissions – relatively quickly and potentially on a global scale – is to switch from the car to cycling, e-biking and walking – these so-called “active” modes of travel.
Measuring the impact of active travel
Active means of transport are cheaper, healthier, less harmful to the environment and do not crowd the streets of often saturated cities.
But exactly how many carbon emissions can they save us on a daily basis? And what is its role in reducing global 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 commute, especially in the city.
One of the important points of our work concerns the fact that if walking and cycling sometimes complement (rather than replace) motorized travel, more people adopting active modes of transport would reduce carbon emissions. transportation daily, trip by trip.
84% less emissions for bicycles
We followed around 4,000 people, living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona,Vienna, Orebro, Rome and Zurich. Over two years, our participants filled out nearly 10,000 travel diaries. They recorded all their daily trips there: commuting to work by train, taking the kids to school by car, taking the bus, etc.
For each trip, we calculate the carbon footprint.
One result particularly impressed us: people who commuted by bicycle emitted 84% less carbon than others.
We also found that for a person who switches from car to bicycle just one day a week, the reduction in their carbon footprint amounts to 3.2 kg of COtwo ; this is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car traveling 10 km, a portion of lamb or chocolate or sending 800 emails.
10 times more fuel efficient than an electric car
When we compare the life cycle of each mode of travel – taking into account the carbon emissions generated for their manufacture, their supply and their fuel consumption – we find that the emissions associated with cycling can be 30 times lower and higher, for each trip. , those associated with driving a fossil fuel-powered 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 bicycle for just one trip a day reduce their carbon footprint by about half a ton of COtwo more than a year; save the emissions equivalent of a one-way flight from London to New York.
If just 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 trips in Europe by around 8%.
Lessons from the pandemic
Nearly half of the drop in daily CO₂ emissions seen during the 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 a 9% increase in the number of cyclists on weekdays and 58% on weekends 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’ve kept people safe during the pandemic and can 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 and healthy means of transport… and reducing traffic jams.