You, your car, and climate change

Knowing that car use contributes to greenhouse gas emissions is not enough for most of us to choose to walk instead. Strong but pragmatic policies are crucial if we are to become greener travellers, researchers say.

22 June 2010, by Adele Rackley

Knowing that driving to town is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions is simply not enough for most of us to choose to walk instead.

The factors influencing drivers' and car-makers' decisions are so complex, say researchers, that strong but pragmatic policies are crucial if we are to become greener travellers.


A picture of personal freedom.

Road transport is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and the transport sector as a whole has the highest growth rate of emissions. So there are plenty of good reasons to do things differently.

But progress towards the provision and use of low-carbon transport has been painfully slow.

So what's going wrong?

Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research found some answers by taking a multidisciplinary approach to this question. They reviewed the literature from social, psychological, economic and policy studies and found there's a complex range of barriers to behaviour change – just telling people there's a problem is not enough.

'It's easy to think that people change their behaviour for only one reason,' says Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh of the Tyndall Centre and Cardiff University, 'but it's far more complicated than that. Conditions need to be right for people to change.'

External pressures, rather than knowledge, make the difference. Whitmarsh and her colleague Dr Jonathan Köhler report in their Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society paper, that policy and regulation have resulted in the most significant behaviour changes so far.

Old habits die hard

Car manufacturing

It seems that habit is a big part of the problem, even for car-makers.

Manufacturers are heavily invested in traditional internal combustion engine and steel chassis production. No one wants to be left behind, but research into new technology doesn't guarantee profits.

Even having the low-carbon technology isn't enough. Without a strong economic reason car-makers are unlikely to respond directly to environmental pressure, even when they have signed up to voluntary measures.

So EU regulations on car-labelling to indicate energy efficiency have had some impact, because they introduce another element of competition between manufacturers.

But, say the researchers, even they were surprised by how small such policy-related changes have been.

For the consumer too, knowledge or even concern about climate change doesn't routinely translate into action. It's been dubbed the 'value-action gap'.

'We need a binding framework of EU policies and targets or people simply won't act.'

Lorraine Whitmarsh, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

A key element of this, says the researchers, is that people get so set in their ways that their daily choice of transport is not based on pros and cons; once the decision's taken and the habit ingrained new information will simply be ignored.

And, like it or not, the car has become a symbol of personal freedom, and car ownership is still widely seen as a significant factor in quality of life. Our infrastructure is designed around car use and often doesn't support lower-carbon alternatives. Having friends and family dispersed across the country also makes the car top choice, particularly in rural areas.

Motivation is a key factor and this is where policy comes in. But because our habits are so ingrained, measures will work best when tied to situations where consumers are reconsidering their choices anyway – a new job for example, or relocation. So the offer of a free bus pass might push us to choose a lower-carbon mode of travel if we happen to be moving house too.

Congestion charge sign

The more successful approaches, the researchers highlight, provide viable alternatives to car use and, importantly, are seen to be fair. The London Congestion Charge is cited as an example, where the resulting reduction in congestion and investment of revenues in public transport has gained public support.

So, says Whitmarsh, to be effective policies must be sensitive to all the barriers to behaviour change and also flexible enough to allow for national physical and cultural differences.

'We need a binding framework of EU policies and targets or people simply won't act,' says Whitmarsh. 'But at the same time they need to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate national differences and allow local policy-makers to reflect local conditions.' That's because some countries want to set their own, more challenging, targets for carbon reduction, while in others, including the UK, it's only EU pressure that has so far produced much change.

But crucially, say the researchers, it's not just a case of putting a new policy in place and watching a series of behaviour changes taking place. What's needed are social and economic policies that will transform transportation, not just tinker round the edges.

And while surveys indicate the public put ultimate responsibility for tackling climate change firmly at government's door, Whitmarsh emphasises there are things we as individuals can do to make a difference.

'Engage with policy-makers about changing the structural barriers – infrastructure and the built environment – that force you to choose the car,' she says. And just being aware of our habitual behaviour can help too: 'Being more mindful of our method of transport, and asking ourselves if it's actually the best choice, can help us break out of our sleep-walking behaviour'.