In 2020, globally, only one new car on 50 was electric. Even if every new car coming out of factories today was electric, it would still take 15 to 20 years to replace the world's fossil fuel-powered fleet.
The reductions in greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions resulting from the replacement of all these heat engines by low-carbon alternatives will not be achieved. not fast enough to make the difference in few years left.
To tackle the climate and atmospheric pollution crises, all motorized transport must be reduced as quickly as possible, especially passenger cars.
However, by focusing only on electric vehicles, we slow down the race towards a drastic reduction in emissions.
Electric, but not "zero carbon"
Part of the reason is that electric cars are not truly "zero carbon" - the extraction of raw materials for their batteries, their manufacture and the production of electricity for their operation produce emissions.
Transport is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonize: this because of its heavy use of fossil fuels and its dependence on carbon-intensive infrastructure - we think of roads, airports and the vehicles themselves - and also of the way in which it integrates the car dependent lifestyles.
One way to reduce transportation emissions - relatively quickly and potentially worldwide - consists of swapping the car for cycling, e-biking and walking - these so-called “active” modes of travel.
Measuring the impact of active travel
Active modes of travel are cheaper, healthier, less harmful to the environment and do not clutter the streets of often saturated cities.
But exactly how many carbon emissions can they save us on a daily basis? And what is their role in reducing overall emissions from the transport sector?
In new study published in April 2021, my colleagues and I identified that people walking or cycling have a lower carbon footprint during their daily commute, especially in the city.
One of the important points of our work concerns the fact that if walking and cycling are sometimes added to motorized travel (rather than replacing them), more people adopting active modes of transport would reduce emissions. of carbon from transport on a daily basis, and trip by trip.
84% less emissions for bicycles
We followed around 4 people, living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Vienna, Orebro, Rome and Zurich. Over the course of two years, our participants filled out some 000 travel diaries. They recorded all their daily trips there: going to work by train, taking the children to school by car, taking the bus, etc.
For each trip, we calculated the carbon footprint.
One result particularly struck us: people who used their bikes every day emitted 84% less carbon than others.
We also found that for a person switching from the car to the bicycle just one day per week, the reduction in their carbon footprint reached 3,2 kg of CO.2 ; this is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car traveling 10 km, a portion of lamb or chocolate ou sending 800 emails.
10 times more fuel-efficient than an electric car
When we compared the life cycle of each mode of travel - taking into account the carbon emissions generated for its manufacture, its power and its fuel consumption - We noticed whereas cycling emissions can be 30 times or more lower, for each trip, than those associated with driving a fossil fuel car; and about ten times lower than those associated with driving an electric car.
We also estimate that city dwellers who switch from car to bike for just one trip per day reduce their carbon footprint by around half a tonne of CO2 over a year; they thus save the equivalent of the emissions of a outbound flight from London to New York.
If only one in five city dwellers would permanently change their travel behavior in this way over the next few years, we estimate that this will reduce emissions from all car trips in Europe by around 8%.
Lessons from the pandemic
Almost half of the decline in daily CO₂ emissions observed during global lockdowns in 2020 comes from the reduction in transport-related emissions.
The pandemic has 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% increase the number of people walking regularly and an increase in the number of cyclists 9% on weekdays and 58% on weekends from pre-pandemic levels. And this, although cyclists are very likely to work from home.
Active travel has offered an alternative to the car while preserving social distance. They have kept people safe during the pandemic and could help reduce emissions as isolation is eased; especially since the high price of some electric vehicles may discourage many potential buyers.
The race is therefore on. Active travel can contribute to the fight against the climate emergency further upstream than electric vehicles, while providing affordable, reliable, clean, healthy means of transport… and enabling traffic congestion to be reduced.
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