Late last year Greta Thunberg gave a powerful speech to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate accord. In it, she said: 

“at the current emission rate our remaining CO2 budget for 1.5 degrees will be completely gone within seven years”

This is worrying, especially considering that up until the pandemic forced parts of the world to grind to a halt, global emissions were only going in one direction: upwards. 

The scientific consensus on how we prevent catastrophic climate change is crystal clear: we need to be cutting emissions now, as fast as we can, not at some comfortably distant time in the future when technology will somehow have magically saved us.

Graph of how emission rates will change under various scenarios
Graph of emission rates from World in Data CC-BY Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

In some areas, Scotland is already making progress (although some of this is due to de-industrialisation) but the picture for transport is pretty stark: while Scottish emissions overall have almost halved between 1990 and 2017, emissions from transport have edged up by 0.4%

Graph showing transport emissions not changing, although rates overall have gone down
Graph from SPICe Briefing: Transport – A climate emergency budget?

Why is this? Because in blunt terms, we’re driving more, and we’re buying less fuel efficient cars – even with electric cars making up an increasing share of new cars. 

Infographic stating the average CO2 emissions for newly registered cars increased by 3% between 2017 and 2018
Transport emissions infographic from the 2019 Transport Scotland Statistics
graph showing the total distance travelled by cars increased by 8.4% between 2011 and 2018
Graph from SPICe Spotlight Car Wars: Revenge of the SUV

Fortunately, there is a solution, and it’s here now. The bicycle has been with us since the 19th century, was all but perfected in the last, and with the option to add e-assist it’s now the perfect solution for most short journeys – including many of those currently done by delivery vans.

Image showing a polar bear with a bike and the caption 'this machine fights climate change

And people will ride, if conditions are right. Cities like Paris and London are showing the way with an ambitious mixture of temporary and permanent schemes offering safe and protected routes that are already bearing fruit – not just catering to existing cyclists, but creating them.

 

There are lots of thorny problems involved in getting the world to net zero – steel production, aviation, concrete – but cutting down the number of private car journeys is not one of them. Even 10 years ago we knew that if everyone in Europe cycled like the Danes (let alone the Dutch) we could cut our transport emissions by 25%.

Unfortunately, we wasted much of those last 10 years by only investing a tiny amount of our transport budget in building active travel infrastructure, which has led to only incremental changes – as we have long argued it would. 

Let’s not waste the next seven years making the same mistake. 

Polar bear family with 'the time is now' caption

The time is now.

The Time is Now: Why we need to act urgently to save the climate