Globally, only one in 50 new cars were fully electric in 2020, and one in 14 in the UK. Sounds impressive, but even if all new cars were electric now, it would still take 15-20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel car fleet.

The emission savings from replacing all those internal combustion engines with zero-carbon alternatives will not feed in fast enough to make the necessary difference in the time we can spare: the next five years. Tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions.

This is partly because electric cars aren’t truly zero-carbon – mining the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity they run on produces emissions.

Transport is one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise due to its heavy fossil fuel use and reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure – such as roads, airports and the vehicles themselves – and the way it embeds car-dependent lifestyles. One way to reduce transport emissions relatively quickly, and potentially globally, is to swap cars for cycling, e-biking and walking – active travel, as it’s called.

Cyclists pass cars on the left in a temporary cycle lane in Hammersmith, London, UK.
Temporary bike lanes have popped up in cities around the world during the pandemic. Texturemaster/Shutterstock

Active travel is cheaper, healthier, better for the environment, and no slower on congested urban streets. So how much carbon can it save on a daily basis? And what is its role in reducing emissions from transport overall?

In new research, colleagues and I reveal that people who walk or cycle have lower carbon footprints from daily travel, including in cities where lots of people are already doing this. Despite the fact that some walking and cycling happens on top of motorised journeys instead of replacing them, more people switching to active travel would equate to lower carbon emissions from transport on a daily and trip-by-trip basis.

What a difference a trip makes

We observed around 4,000 people living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Vienna, Orebro, Rome and Zurich. Over a two-year period, our participants completed 10,000 travel diary entries which served as records of all the trips they made each day, whether going to work by train, taking the kids to school by car or riding the bus into town. For each trip, we calculated the carbon footprint.

Strikingly, people who cycled on a daily basis had 84% lower carbon emissions from all their daily travel than those who didn’t.

We also found that the average person who shifted from car to bike for just one day a week cut their carbon footprint by 3.2kg of CO2 – equivalent to the emissions from driving a car for 10km, eating a serving of lamb or chocolate, or sending 800 emails.

When we compared the life cycle of each travel mode, taking into account the carbon generated by making the vehicle, fuelling it and disposing of it, we found that emissions from cycling can be more than 30 times lower for each trip than driving a fossil fuel car, and about ten times lower than driving an electric one.

A row of three electric vehicle charging points beside a road in London.
Driving an electric vehicle is only as green as the energy supply. I Wei Huang/Shutterstock

We also estimate that urban residents who switched from driving to cycling for just one trip per day reduced their carbon footprint by about half a tonne of CO2 over the course of a year, and save the equivalent emissions of a one-way flight from London to New York. If just one in five urban residents permanently changed their travel behaviour in this way over the next few years, we estimate it would cut emissions from all car travel in Europe by about 8%.

Nearly half of the fall in daily carbon emissions during global lockdowns in 2020 came from reductions in transport emissions. The pandemic forced countries around the world to adapt to reduce the spread of the virus. In the UK, walking and cycling have been the big winners, with a 20% rise in people walking regularly, and cycling levels increasing by 9% on weekdays and 58% on weekends compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is despite cycle commuters being very likely to work from home.

Active travel has offered an alternative to cars that keeps social distancing intact. It has helped people to stay safe during the pandemic and it could help reduce emissions as confinement is eased, particularly as the high prices of some electric vehicles are likely to put many potential buyers off for now.

So the race is on. Active travel can contribute to tackling the climate emergency earlier than electric vehicles while also providing affordable, reliable, clean, healthy and congestion-busting transportation.

Christian Brand, Associate Professor in Transport, Energy & Environment, Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. This article makes some good points but is far too simplistic. We need MUCH more sophisticated thinking. There are multiple reasons why cycling is not a substitute for vehicles and there is MUCH more at stake than looking myopically at transport. In Australia we are wrestling with how to transition from coal fired baseload power to intermittent renewables. Currently gas fired power is the transition fuel, but what’s really needed is grid level storage, ideally distributed around the grid. If Australia transitioned to EV’s, then 2M cars each with 60kWh batteries would put 120GWh of distributed storage on the grid – that’s 3.5 Snowy 2.0’s but because its distributed it reduces demand on the grid rather than increasing it. This is enough storage to hold 2.3 days of electricity demand. So the transition to EV’s is massively enabling of the entire transition to renewables – not just the 27% of emissions from transport alone – cycling has nothing to offer in this transition or for all of the reasons cycles can’t substitute cars.

  2. I am getting really tired of quoting cycling research from Europe and trying to apply it to Australian capital cities. Really: “We observed around 4,000 people living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Vienna, Orebro, Rome and Zurich.” – has anyone cast a glance at the geographic size and population numbers of these cities? Other than London, all of them are smaller, denser with much, much shorter average trips. People largely do not live 20-45 kms away from their places of work in Europe.

    They cycle to work in work suits and high heels, and they don’t have to ruin their hair do with a helmet.

    While we have cycling maniacs who disregard every road rule ever written, swipe pedestrians and generally behave like the world is theirs only, because they have to cycle 30 and more kms to work and back, and that is hard to do if you have to stop at red light or stationary tram.

    European solutions are not applicable to Australia – we have much longer distances which are impossible to navigate safely for anyone over 45 (i.e. most people), we have more children that have to be taken to nursery, kinder, school in two and threes (most European kids go to local schools on foot and on their own), our public transport system is woefully inadequate.

    Stop comparing Syd/Mel/Brisbane/Perth with Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna, Zurich. Zurich has a population of half a million and area of 89km2. Vienna has a population of 2.2 million and area of 415 km2. Perth has a population of about 2 million and area of almost 6500km2 (same population, 13 times the area of Vienna). I won’t bother to quote Syd/Mel/Gold Coast. Does not work for Australia. Go back to drawing board and find some inventive, new, yet unseen solution that will work. Stop copy pasting from Europe.