Are we nearly there yet? The move to low-carbon transport

low-carbon trust

A new book co-edited by the Centre on Innovation & Energy Demand’s Dr Debbie Hopkins looks at how we can begin to make the big leap away from fossil fuel powered mobility:


As we progress into the 21st century, people are becoming increasingly aware that fossil fuel powered societies are unsustainable and causing critical damage to the environment. Legal obligations for governments to reduce C0₂ emissions are in place and renewable energy sources like sun and wind, for example, are rapidly becoming a major part of the overall power mix.

However, in the transport sector, there has been little movement towards large-scale adoption of low-carbon modes, and transport is largely overlooked by global climate agreements. The sector needs to pull its weight and begin to reduce emissions if the UK government is to meet its ambitious target of an 80% reduction of the 1990 level of carbon emissions by 2050.

A multi-faceted question

The question of what needs to happen to enable a transition to low-carbon transport is complex and involves the interplay between technology, policy and consumer behaviour. The new book and the Centre on Innovation in Energy Demand (CIED)’s research are dedicated to finding the answer to these questions and to offer evidence on how to effect change. The book looks at scenarios from across the world to give a picture of where we are now and how we get to a society of low carbon mobility.

The technology

Technologies for low carbon mobility are, to a large extent, already here. For example, electric and hybrid cars are now a part of the make-up of the nation’s ‘fleet’ of vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell cars are being developed. There have been issues with the range of these vehicles and ease/availability of charging them, but these have been overcome as the technology has developed. The technical issues are also intermingled with consumer attitudes to electric vehicles and government policies relating to their use.

Other technological factors include recent innovations such as online shopping, which may substitute personal travel with that of light-goods vehicles. Virtual attendance at meetings or events can also be an alternative to physical travel, although remote attendance is not a suitable alternative to being there in person in many cases.

This complexity is highlighted in Chapter 13 of the book, when Professor Stefan Gossling argues “While there is potential for many apps to improve public transport use and to make shared or public forms of transportation more desirable, more powerful social changes are currently initiated by social media and the Internet in opposite directions”.


Governments have the potential to give a strong steer to transitions of this kind in society, but will often only act decisively if there is a strong wave of public pressure or enthusiasm to introduce new measures. Policymakers also need to think about the economy and the power of car manufacturers and oil companies who may benefit from the status quo and be reluctant to change. However, if industry can see a profitable business model in low-carbon vehicles the impetus required to create a step-change in our attitude to mobility may be achievable.

The level of government is also a factor. Local or city-level transport initiatives can often introduce practical change much quicker than central government directives.

In his chapter, CIED co-director Dr Tim Schwanen, for example speaks of the ability of smaller cities to progress low-carbon innovations: “The case of cycling in Brighton demonstrates that world cities like London are not the only places where large scale, innovative changes to urban mobility are possible” however, Dr Schwanen argues that this “does not mean that the national scale has become much less important. As Mans (2014) also suggests with reference to clean technology, national policies and formal and informal institutions continue to play critical roles in shaping the development trajectories of innovations in urban mobility”.


Individual attitudes to transport also have a major part to play in energy transition. While we are seeing increases in cycling and walking in cities there is a symbolic as well as practical dimension to private car travel. If consumers can be convinced of the health, well-being and financial benefits of low-carbon transport as well as to the wider environment this may be a key factor in creating a tipping point.

There is also much research being done into the possible benefits of increasing public transport accessibility to poorer and more isolated areas, allowing the residents greater opportunities to engage in work, leisure and community activities.

As well as some of the issues briefly outlined above, the book also includes chapters on multi-national topics such as business travel, and aeromobilities, as well as country specific chapters including transport policies in Japan, electro-mobility in China, Open Streets in Cape Town, South Africa, and Chinese migrant communities in Sydney, Australia.


Low Carbon Mobility Transitions includes chapters from Dr Paula Kivimaa and Dr Tim Schwanen, both from CIED.

Dr Debbie Hopkins is a Research Fellow in Low Carbon Mobility and Energy Demand at Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford

More on the book: Low Carbon Mobility Transitions edited by Debbie Hopkin and James Higham

More on the CIED Centre