Challenges for sustainable transport

The Open University’s Stephen Potter talks sustainable transport.

The Open University Students’ Association’s recent conference provided a rare opportunity for distance learning students to catch a glimpse of what goes on at the OU’s campus in Milton Keynes.

One of the most interesting sessions of the weekend for a Green like myself was on Professor Stephen Potter’s research into sustainable transport. Potter contends that while sustainable transport is achievable, at ground level at least, policymakers are in denial about the steps that are necessary to get there.

The UK has set itself a target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 66% of 1990 levels by 2020 and by 20% by 2050 – the transport sector is currently falling a long way short of this goal. According to Potter, policymakers are in denial about the scale of the problem, placing all their hopes in a technical revolution that will suddenly and drastically decarbonise the system.

In fact, given current trends of increasing population, journey frequency and journey length, a 60% reduction in emissions per kilometre will be required just to stop a further increase in total emissions from the current level. Currently envisaged solutions will not deliver this – some biofuels are responsible for emissions almost as high as diesel, while electric cars are only as environmentally friendly as the (largely coal- and gas-generated) electricity that powers them.

The reality, for Potter, is that genuine progress will require both significant technological advances and profound behavioural change, including greater public transport use, more flexible working hours (as many public transport services are already at capacity at peak-time), an increase in teleworking – the Open University claims its distance learning model results in only 10% of the CO2 emissions per student of traditional universities – and a new approach to urban planning that minimises travelling between home, work and services.

Potter believes that, at present, transport authorities are too obsessed with infrastructure and in some cases lack competence to deliver the sort of change he says is required. Despite this, he appears to be optimistic that the necessary reduction in emissions can be delivered on land. Of course, even that leaves the thorny issue of a growing aviation sector to address, but that shall be a topic for another post!

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About msimpsongpni

Mark Simpson is Environment spokesperson for the Green Party in Northern Ireland and Green Party coordinator in the Balmoral electoral area, Belfast.
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