Published: 20 August 2014

Politicians must be tougher to meet transport emissions targets

New research discovers that a focus on new technology is not enough to reach carbon reduction targets in the transport industry.

Transport accounts for 30 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions in the EU, with emissions rising 36 per cent between 1990 and 2007.

In order to drive decarbonisation policy and lower these numbers to meet reduction targets for carbon emissions, policy-makers are turning to new technologies in the transport industry, such as biofuel and improved aircraft design.

However, a new paper from researchers at Lund University in Sweden and the University of Surrey has revealed that, in order to cut damaging carbon emissions, politicians need to address deep-seated ‘transport taboos’ rather than simply focus on technological innovation.

The paper, Why sustainable transport policies will fail: EU climate policy in the light of transport taboos, has exposed a range of transport ‘norms’ – a growing appetite for frequent, long-distance travel, for example – that need to be addressed before real progress can be made. The problem is compounded by the discovery that policies which tackle these taboos are regarded as serious threats to political capital and are therefore ignored by those in power.

“Politicians continue to ignore evidence of what works in favour of optimistic headlines about technological innovation, driven by industry and lobbyists”, explained Dr Scott Cohen from the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, who co-authored the paper. “Our research explores how these transport taboos are driving policies that are contradictory to carbon emission targets. For example, energy intensive air transport is the least taxed and most subsidised; in one year, Ryanair received subsidies of €800m while encouraging frequent, low-cost flight.”

The research also found that it is the most highly mobile and environmentally aware travellers who refuse to change their ways, with men in higher income groups the most frequent and long-distance flyers. 

“The richest and most politically powerful contribute the most to global carbon emissions”, noted Dr Cohen. “Ironically, they are offered rewards for this behaviour with air miles, as well as earning prestige among peers who view international travel as a status symbol.

“There is a lot of exaggeration surrounding ‘wonder’ technologies that promise to reduce carbon levels while allowing privileged sections of society to continue to travel without limits. These optimistic claims are largely undebated in political circles, as they would force politicians to face some harsh truths.

“Rather than maintain the status quo, we need to start challenging these damaging norms.”

Explore the report in full, read an article about the research on ClimateWire, or visit The Conversation for Dr Cohen’s article about the research.

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