‘What if we just gave up cars?’: Cop26 leaders urged to dream big
A new agreement would phase out fossil fuel vehicles but activists want a focus on public transport, walking and cycling
Governments and car manufacturers have coalesced at the Glasgow climate talks around new targets to drastically ramp up the use of electric vehicles. But activists at the summit have urged a more fundamental question – what if we just gave up all types of cars?
With the new goal of phasing out new sales of gasoline and diesel cars within 20 years, dozens of countries and car companies have used Cop26 to extol the rise of electric vehicles as a way to slash planet-heating emissions.
“This is a massive transformation,” said Omar Alghabra, transport minister for Canada, one of the 24 countries to sign on to the new pledge. Alghabra spoke on Wednesday on a panel of government officials and business leaders in the vast Glasgow convention centre, a multicolored Envision formula-E race car perched in the foreground on a podium. “We see this as a massive opportunity for job creation,” he added.
Cynthia Williams, environmental policy manager at Ford, one of the carmakers to join the agreement, called for government support to help spread a new wave of electric vehicles around the world.
“We need these vehicles now, we need actions to match our ambitions,” she said. “One of the key things we will need to accelerate the electrification revolution is incentives. We need infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. This is needed to get more people in the vehicles, leaving no one behind.”
While this grand vision would cut emissions – transport is responsible for about a fifth of the world’s carbon pollution and electric vehicles are much cleaner than fossil fuel-powered cars – climate campaigners have called on governments to have a deeper rethink about the role of cars.
At a series of protests held on Wednesday, activists urged greater funding for public transport and walking and cycling paths, arguing that a promised “green revolution” away from cars during the Covid pandemic has failed to materialize in most cities.
Nancy Henderson, a protester who lives in Glasgow, said that cycling flourished during lockdown but that many people have switched back to cars as they don’t feel safe cycling in traffic.
“That’s an issue with electric cars, people will still feel unsafe with them around,” she said. “It doesn’t actually change the issue of congestion and the number of cars on our streets. Going electric doesn’t change the blight of cars in our cities. We are still isolated in our little booth, not communicating, not meeting other people.”
Henderson said many Glaswegians were resentful of the smart card public transport passes given to Cop26 delegates, which enable unlimited use of trains and buses during the conference. “No one else around here has ever got one of those smart cards,” she said. “It marginalizes people when you don’t have good public transport.”
Environmental critics of electric cars argue that they still clog up cities and are dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians. While they are vastly less polluting than traditional cars, lithium is mined in often controversial circumstances for the batteries used by electric vehicles, and dust from car brakes and tyres still give off a certain amount of air pollution.
At a separate pro-cycling protest held on Wednesday, the designated day to focus on transport at the Cop26 talks, activists held signs reading “Electric cars are a Cop out” and “Car car car blah blah blah”.
Iona Shepherd, of the GoBike and Pedal on Parliament groups, who organized the protest, pointed out that “active travel is not even on the table for discussions” at the climate summit.
“At the conference electric cars are taking centre stage, while our sustainable form of transport – by far the cheapest and easiest way to cut emissions from transport – doesn’t even get a mention,” she said.
“We need the Cop to force through better investment and political will for sustainable transport modes if they are serious about the Paris agreement to limit warming to 1.5C.”
Electric vehicle numbers are still dwarfed by those of gasoline and diesel cars around the world but sales have been climbing in recent years and exploded following the pandemic outbreak. Global sales are expected to surpass 5m this year, an increase of more than 80% over the past decade.
Electric vehicle purchases in China, the US and Europe – the top three auto markets – surged by 160% in the first half of 2021 from a year earlier, aided by the enthusiastic backing of political leaders. Joe Biden is pushing for half of all sales in the US to be electric by 2030 and expects to sign a huge spending bill next week that will funnel billions of dollars into consumer rebates to purchase new zero-emissions cars.
There should be a rethink of this strategy, activists outside the summit say. “Whilst we recognize the important contribution electric vehicles will have in reducing carbon emissions in the future, we need to reduce emissions now,” said Paul Tuohy, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport.
“Persuading more people to swap at least some journeys from cars to public transport will have immediate benefits for the climate.”