Globally, only one in 50 new cars were fully electric in 2020, and one in 14 in the UK. Sounds impressive, but even if all new cars were electric now, it would still take 15-20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel car fleet.

According to a new study by the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit, people who walk, e-bike or cycle have lower carbon footprints from daily travel.

Published in the Global Environmental Change journal, this study is the first analysis of the carbon-reducing impact of city-based lifestyle changes.

The findings reveal that increases in active mobility, even if just one day a week, can significantly lower carbon footprints – even in European contexts with a high incidence of walking and cycling already exists.

By following around 4,000 urban dwellers, in Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Orebro, Rome, Vienna and Zurich, over a two-year period, researchers found that the average person who shifted from car to bike for just one day a week, cut their carbon footprint by 3.2kg of CO2 – equivalent to the emissions from driving a car for 10km

Participants who cycled on a daily basis had 84 per cent lower carbon emissions from all their daily travel than those who didn’t. 

Even those who switched just one trip per day from driving to cycling reduced their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes over a year, the equivalent of a one-way flight from London to New York and representative of a substantial share of average per capita CO2 emissions.

The University of Oxford’s lead researcher, Dr Christian Brand, explains: “If just 10 per cent of the population were to change their travel behaviour, the emissions savings would be around four per cent of lifecycle CO2 emissions from all car travel.”

“Nearly half of the fall in daily carbon emissions during global lockdowns in 2020 came from reductions in transport emissions. The pandemic forced countries around the world to adapt to reduce the spread of the virus,” he added.

“In the UK, walking and cycling have been the big winners, with a 20% rise in people walking regularly, and cycling levels increasing by 9% on weekdays and 58% on weekends compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is despite cycle commuters being very likely to work from home.”

“Our findings suggest that, even if not all car trips could be substituted by bicycle trips, the potential for decreasing emissions in huge,” Brand says.

Replacing combustion engines with zero-carbon alternatives will not contribute fast enough to making the necessary difference in the next five years.

Tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions. The analysis comes as the UK is set to host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.

Ahead of the summit, countries are expected to submit enhanced pledges to tackle emissions and accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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