In 2020, globally, only one in 50 new cars was electric. Even if every new car rolling out of factories today were electric, it would still take 15 to 20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel-powered car fleet.
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 tackle the climate and air pollution crises, all motorized transport, especially private cars, must be reduced as quickly as possible.
But by focusing only on electric cars, we slow down the race towards a drastic reduction in emissions.
Electric, but not “zero carbon”
Part of the reason is that electric cars are not truly ‘zero carbon’ – mining the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity to power them produces emissions.
Transport is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise: this because of its high use of fossil fuels and its reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure – such as roads, airports and the vehicles themselves – and also how it accommodates car-dependent lifestyles.
One way to reduce transport-related emissions – relatively quickly and potentially on a global scale – is to replace the car with cycling, e-cycling and walking – these so-called “active” forms of travel.
Measuring the impact of active travel
Active forms of transport are cheaper, healthier, less harmful to the environment and do not clutter the streets of often saturated cities.
But exactly how many CO2 emissions can they save us on a daily basis? And what is their role in reducing overall 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 trips, especially in the city.
One of the important points of our work concerns the fact that if walking and cycling sometimes complement motorized travel (rather than replace it), a greater number of people choosing active forms of travel will reduce emissions. CO2 emissions from transport on a daily basis, on a trip-to-trip basis.
84% less emissions for bicycles
We followed around 4,000 people living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Vienna, Örebro, Rome and Zurich. Over two years, our participants filled in around 10,000 travel diaries. They recorded all their daily trips there: going to work by train, taking the children to school by car, taking the bus, etc.
For each trip, we calculated the CO2 footprint.
One result particularly struck us: people who traveled daily by bicycle emitted 84% less carbon than the others.
We also found that for someone who switched from car to bike just one day a week, the reduction in their carbon footprint reached 3.2 kg of CO22 ; it is equivalent to the emissions of a car driving 10 km, a portion of lamb or chocolate or sending 800 e-mails.
10 times more fuel efficient than an electric car
When we compared the life cycle of each form of travel – taking into account the carbon emissions generated by manufacturing, supply and fuel consumption, we found that the emissions associated with cycling can be 30 times lower, and more for each trip, to those associated with with driving a car with fossil fuel; and about ten times lower than those associated with driving an electric car.
We also estimate that city dwellers who switch from car to bike for just one trip per day reduce their carbon footprint by around half a ton of CO22 over a year; they save the equivalent of the emissions of a single 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 it would reduce emissions from all car travel in Europe by around 8%.
Lessons from the pandemic
Almost half of the drop in daily CO₂ emissions seen during global shutdowns 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% at weekends compared to pre-pandemic levels. . And this, even though cyclists are very likely to work from home.
Active commuting offered an alternative to the car while maintaining social distancing. They have kept people safe during the pandemic and could help reduce emissions as isolation eases; especially since the high price of some electric vehicles is likely to deter many potential buyers.
So the race is on. Active travel can contribute to the fight against the climate crisis further upstream than electric vehicles, while offering affordable, reliable, clean, healthy means of transport… and reducing traffic congestion.