Environmental progress can, and must, go hand in hand with economic growth. It is crucial that the desire for advancement does not hinder any economic recovery and instead opportunities must be seized to enable people to find and use greener alternatives.
Whilst we have made significant progress in using renewable sources of energy, exceeding the previous record of eighteen hours of coal-free electricity production, motorists continue to account for the release of a huge number of polluting gases. In early April, surface transport emissions, which include vehicle and industry, declined by 43%. This is the same as the drop in emissions from industry and power generation combined.
At the end of March 2020 there were 38.3 million licensed vehicles in Great Britain. Being such a large number, it is only right that when making greener progress in the transport industry, we start with motorists. 4 in 5 would take some action to reduce their impact on air quality. Under unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances, we now have the ability to make changes to our lives and create a “new normal”.
Particularly prevalent following the post-lockdown changes, a quarter of motorists said that they plan to work from home more often. Recently, it has become increasingly apparent that people make unnecessary journeys into work, when meetings and other tasks can be just as easily completed at home or over a video call. This is not advocating for a blanket policy to cover all scenarios because, in a number of circumstances, the social and practical benefits outweigh the arguments in favour of video conferencing from home. Nonetheless, the fact that a number of meetings can be easily held by video conferencing, without travelling, is an important one. Cutting unnecessary travelling, boosting productivity and saving the environment, as well as saving money.
A big mistake would be limiting choice and increasing costs for workers, particularly at a time when we need them most. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Sadiq Khan has done in London. The congestion charge price hike, implemented by the Mayor of London, makes an outright mockery of the city’s hard-working individuals. You can debate about the benefits and negatives of the policy, but it is clear that the timing is all wrong; not only will it increase costs for workers to travel into London at a time when disposable income may be short but the increased and expanded congestion charge will put lives at risk. Social distancing rules on public transport clearly don’t apply to Sadiq Khan’s London when it causes him financial inconveniences.
Reducing congestion must instead be done by giving greener modes of transport the same platforms as others. For example, the UK Government has pledged £250 million for improvements in cycling and walking infrastructure, the first part of a £2 billion investment announced by the Department for Transport. Whether it is expanding infrastructure, making roads more accessible to cyclists or legalising the use of electric scooters. The creation of a level playing field for all modes of transport will provide more choice. This, in turn, will enable more people to choose greener alternatives leading to an increase in innovation which will drive sustainable practices. In a poll of 20,000 motorists by the AA, 50% said they would walk more and 40% intended to drive less. Clearly, there is an appetite for change, however we cannot just simply expect habits to change without transforming the very structures that have discouraged people in the past.
Rationality is key, but where possible, it is crucial that we find and use other methods of transport. As well as improvements in cycling and walking infrastructure, other means of transport should be provided a platform to thrive, within the government’s environmental strategy. An example of an innovative solution that the market has provided is electric scooters. Electric scooters, made legal for rental use from July 2020, are a speedy, practical and cheap way to navigate cities whilst also being incredibly good fun. This further incentivises people to use them and reduce congestion on urban roads. Increasingly important at this time, electric scooters provide a great alternative to public transport and are used in the open air so there is a reduced risk of respiratory transmission of coronavirus.
New habits are not confined to pioneering inventions, the human race has been walking during its entire existence. Walking around Parliament Square on a weekday in May, one could become speechless at the absence of engine noises and exhaust fumes. It has been reassuring to see that bike sales increased by 60% in April as people connected with the great outdoors in ways that they may not have ever done before. The health and environmental benefits are obvious and we have been provided a great opportunity that must be seized. Arguably, this would not have occurred was it not for a nationwide lockdown, yet having laid the foundations ourselves by beginning to change our own actions, we must capitalize on the opportunity by advancing and persevering with this.
Crucially, these healthier and greener habits must not end, as and when lockdown does. The United Kingdom must continue to lead the world in environmental progress, but as the nation’s economic recovery is vital, this progress must not come at the detriment of the workforce. The post-Coronavirus economic recovery must not be restricted in any way. Lives have been halted so we must not put barriers up to prevent people from reaching their full potential and restoring their livelihoods.
Change starts with the individual. We all have the ability to make changes, whether it’s walking more or driving less, no environmental benefit is worthless. Therefore, we as individuals should frequently ask ourselves: is this mode of transport a necessity or merely convenience?