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Reliance on electric cars to solve climate emergency would be a COP-out, say leading transport NGOs

10 November 2021

From the Sustainable Transport Alliance (Bus Users, Campaign for Better Transport, Community Rail Network, Community Transport Association, Collaborative Mobility UK, Living Streets, London Cycling Campaign, Sustrans).

A group of the UK’s leading sustainable transport NGOs is appealing to world leaders to recognise that technology alone cannot reduce transport emissions. Reducing traffic and shifting towards public and community transport, walking, cycling and shared mobility must be a major climate goal, which can unleash widespread health, wellbeing and social justice benefits.  

As the focus of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) turns to transport - the biggest source of greenhouse emissions in the UK and the fastest rising globally - the Sustainable Transport Alliance is highlighting that solely focussing on electric vehicles (EVs) would mean ignoring their social and environmental drawbacks - including a potential 51 per cent increase in road traffic in the UK – and the immediate benefits of shifting more journeys to existing greener forms of transport. 

The group is outlining how the UK as president of COP26 can lead the way globally by drawing on community actions and voices to place walking and cycling, public, community and shared transport at the heart of climate ambitions. This would be in line with the UK Government’s commitments to make public transport and active travel the natural choice, and the Scottish and Welsh Governments’ targets to reduce private vehicle use.

With more than half (55 per cent) of all UK transport emissions coming from cars, Sustainable Transport Alliance partners will be discussing at a Green Zone event at COP26 measures that could help ensure the UK meets its net zero commitment, including through:  

  • Introducing progressively tightening targets to reduce motorised traffic (and in particular private car use) and the policies necessary to achieve these
  • Setting short- and medium-term carbon reduction targets to deliver on its welcome long-term decarbonisation declarations
  • Ensuring public, shared, community and active travel are attractive and viable alternatives to private car use
  • Investing in social infrastructure to boost communities’ ability to advocate for local needs.

Jools Townsend, chair of the Sustainable Transport Alliance, and chief executive of Community Rail Network, said: “The inspiring campaigners and change-makers from around the world who have been addressing COP26 have been underlining how we must put people, communities and justice at the forefront in tackling the climate crisis, and this very much applies to transport. The evidence is clear that we cannot put all our faith in electric cars - we need a more fundamental shift in how we get around, and we have much to gain from this. By focusing on a shift towards public, shared and community transport, walking and cycling, we can create healthier, happier communities and more equal access to opportunity, without adding to emissions and environmental problems through the manufacture of millions more cars. We’re proud to be coming together with our NGO partners at COP26 to showcase action and amplify voices within communities across the UK that are working towards a greener, better, more inclusive transport future.”

Richard Dilks, Chief Executive of CoMoUK, said: “The world is watching Glasgow and hoping that countries can come together to tackle the climate emergency. While international action is vital, local communities can also make a difference in creating a cleaner, greener transport future. By showcasing examples of how to shift people away from private car use, COP26 is an opportunity for Scotland and the UK to demonstrate the role of grassroots action as part of local, national and international transport decarbonisation.”

Paul Tuohy, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Whilst we recognise the important contribution electric vehicles will have in reducing carbon emissions in the future, we need to reduce emissions now. Persuading more people to swap at least some journeys from cars to public transport will have immediate benefits for the climate. So rather than saying it’s business as usual and technology will save the day, our leaders need to be upfront with people on what each of us needs to do and provide the right investment and infrastructure to enable us to do it.”

To highlight the challenges and benefits of reducing private car use and recognise the importance of local communities in creating a cleaner, greener transport future, the Sustainable Transport Alliance is holding an interactive session, ‘People make transport: communities enabling greener travel’, in the Green Zone of COP26 today (10 November). The session will showcase how local initiatives can engage and empower people to achieve climate-safe, healthy and inclusive transport systems and behaviours, with examples and insights on how bringing people and partners together locally leads to innovation and integration across different transport modes. 

Examples of local projects which will be highlighted at the event include an employment mobility pilot in South Wales Valleys; a travel confidence scheme with young people in Lancashire; people-centred street design in East London; and place-making and active travel development in the host city of Glasgow. 

Speaking at the event are Patrick Harvie MSP, Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants' Rights, Scottish Government; Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary, UK Department for Transport; Greg Marsden, Professor of Transport Governance, University of Leeds Institute of Transport Studies; Cllr Anna Richardson, City Convenor for Sustainability and Carbon Reduction, Glasgow City Council; Xavier Brice, Chief Executive, Sustrans; Richard Dilks, Chief Executive, Collaborative Mobility (CoMo) UK; Jools Townsend, Chief Executive, Community Rail Network; and Martin Dean, Managing Director - Business Development, Go Ahead Group.

‘People make transport: communities enabling greener travel’ is supported by Transport Scotland and Go-Ahead Group.


‘People make transport: communities enabling greener travel’ is taking place in Tower Base South, Glasgow Science Centre, 5-6pm on 10 November 2021 as part of the UK Government’s Green Zone programme of events. You can watch the session live here: https://youtu.be/1pP_o5eJbvA

For further information please contact the press office on 07984 773 468 (calls only no texts) or communications@bettertransport.org.uk

Notes to Editors

  1. The Sustainable Transport Alliance is made up of Bus UsersCampaign for Better TransportCommunity Rail NetworkCommunity Transport AssociationCollaborative Mobility UK (CoMoUK)Living StreetsLondon Cycling CampaignSustrans
  2. See our shared vision, mission and priorities.
  3. In the UK, transport is now the biggest source of emissions, with most from cars and vans.
  4. Globally, transport emissions are rising faster than any other sector.  
  5. There is growing recognition that to decarbonise in a rapid and inclusive way, we need to shift away from car dependency, towards public and community transport, walking, cycling, and shared mobility becoming the ‘natural choice’
  6. The Government’s own traffic forecasts estimate that switching to an electric vehicle fleet without replacing fuel duty would see road traffic increase by 51 per cent between 2015 and 2050
  7. Government’s zero emission vehicle delivery plan suggests that under most scenarios uptake will be slower than recommended by the Climate Change Committee. This means focusing on EVs is not enough to meet the net zero targets. Estimates suggest a traffic reduction of at least 20 per cent will be needed. A report by CREDS at University of Leeds suggested we need to reduce the proportion of trips made by private car from about 80 per cent of all trips in 2017 to below 60 per cent by 2030 (under its less ambitious scenario).
  8. The UK Net Zero Strategy says: “We cannot simply rely on the electrification of road transport, or believe that zero emission cars and lorries will solve all our problems. As we build back better from the pandemic, it will be essential to avoid a car-led recovery. Alongside road vehicle decarbonisation, we must increase the share of trips taken by public transport, cycling and walking. We want to make these modes the natural first choice for all who can take them. As more journeys are cycled or walked, and taken by public transport, the carbon, air quality, noise and congestion benefits will be complemented by significant improvements in public health and wellbeing.”
  9. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have both recognised that aviation and road demand needs to be reduced in order to reduce carbon emissions and have set specific targets in their strategies: Decarbonising the Scottish Transport Sector and The Wales Transport Strategy 2021.