The USA is rejoining the 2016 Paris Agreement, following President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow is less than 10 months away. At the end of last year, the UK Government set out a ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution and confirmed bringing forward a ban on new diesel and petrol cars from 2040 to 2030. It’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan is also expected to be published soon. Meanwhile we are still gripped by a pandemic.
Global protests inspired by teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg swelled during 2019 with calls for action in response to the climate emergency. In a period from September 2019, Australia experienced the worst bush fires in history – a stark symptom of a changing climate in many people’s eyes. Then the pandemic took hold. The world’s attention was drawn to a more immediate crisis and one that is yet to pass. COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through societies with loss of life, loss of confidence and loss of the freedoms. It has left us more uncertain than ever about what the future has in store.
Restrictions on travel and social distancing have brought parts of the transport sector to their knees, with demand decimated. Meanwhile, a prolonged behaviour change experiment has been in play as many people turn to digital connectivity and their local neighbourhoods in order to live their lives.
In the face of such circumstances, the UK remains committed to decarbonising transport in less than 30 years. This is a hugely ambitious undertaking that will involve multiple transitions in a sector that has a poor track record for reducing its total CO2 emissions, epitomised by an upwards not downwards emissions pressure created by the popularity of SUVs.
Will the pandemic prove to be the nail in the coffin of hopes to clean up transport at the scale and pace that is needed? Will the economic aftermath of COVID-19 drive a craving for a return to the familiarity of pre-pandemic activity and transport behaviours? Will those who fear what they see as the ‘climate change ideology’ muster an appetite for dampening the sense of urgency and responsibility to decarbonise?
Or could COVID-19 be a catalyst for our salvation? Might humanity’s exposure to its own vulnerability and to its ability to rapidly adapt behaviours during the pandemic have changed its outlook, with a greater willingness to embrace decarbonisation? Could the state of flux be a true opening for bold new steps for a green recovery as governments strive for economic stability and their place in the new world order?
This 90-minute panel debate is the eighth in a series of PTRC Fireside Chats prompted by COVID-19 that consider implications for transport. The event is intended to provide a thought-provoking examination of the outlook for decarbonisation, in light of COVID-19.
The conversation will be framed with the following questions:
- Where might we now be in terms of transport decarbonisation prospects had the pandemic not materialised?
- What grounds for optimism or pessimism regarding decarbonising transport are there as a result of COVID-19?
- Has COVID-19 shifted the relative expectations of technology fix and behaviour change as contributors to decarbonising transport?
- What else might the pandemic and its aftermath have in store that could significantly influence decarbonisation?
- How much could or should COVID-19 shape COP26 and will it make a difference to the resolve for action?