Covid-19: Other mobilities are (im)possible

Monika Büscher, Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University

Other mobilities are possible. But will a systemic shock engender systemic change?

Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus) has shut down air travel and the global economy, and incited a mass-move online to work, meet, and socialise. When the catastrophe is over, will some of the lessons, values, and new practices stick? Early signs are not promising.

As the news is dominated by Covid-19, the climate, pollution, and environmental crises seem forgotten. Indeed, mobility systems ‘naturally’ seem deserving of billion Dollar rescue packages, even though they are causally implicated in the death of 7 million people from air pollution per year worldwide (WHO), 40,000 a year in the UK, and climate change that will impoverish, displace, and kill more than 240 million people by 2050, whilst incurring $520 billion losses (Worldbank). Might the viral mobilities of Covid-19 eclipse these other crises?

In our current media discourse they already do. The virus is feared in ways that mobilises instant, worldwide societal and economic transformation. In contrast, the threat of looming systemic collapse of vital planetary systems has inspired very little action. It is the multi-causal system-ness of the climate, pollution, and environmental crises that has stopped a mobilities transformation so far. That hasn’t changed.

empty city street

To change mobilities systems, more than disruption is needed.

Learning new ways of living, working, and socialising locally and online is possible and not enough. We also need deeper understanding of, and more mobilities research on: public understanding, reasoning and sense-making practices around system-ness and precarity, causality and responsibility, courage and creativity, social movements and mobile publics, collective and individual capacities for translating understanding to transformation.

For more reflections from other mobilities scholars, see the Critical Automobility Studies Lab.

For more reflections from the DecarboN8 team and to find out how you can contribute to the conversation subscribe to our Newsletter

Coronavirus and the Climate Emergency

by Richard Walker

When I joined the DecarboN8 Network team at ITS on a secondment from the Department for Transport just four short weeks ago, I did not expect to be writing a blog to introduce myself in circumstances of a public health emergency that will change the world drastically. I was expecting to be writing about making 2020 a year of bringing the climate emergency to the top of the political agenda, building up towards meaningful global action on transport decarbonisation at the 26th UN climate summit (COP-26) in Glasgow in November. In this moment though it feels more important to write about coronavirus and what it might mean for the climate emergency.

But as my kids’ ‘LOTRmemes’ Reddit feed tells me, we do not get to decide what our time is, all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

A threat growing exponentially gives us little time to adjust to the enormity of what we are facing. This might be a virus; or as the Australians can teach us, a bush fire; or, as the Bahamians could teach us (if only we asked them), a monstrous hurricane. We must try our best to avoid being overwhelmed. First, we need to survive. Then, if we survive, we can ask, how can we make some good come out of this disaster?

DecarboN8 launched in November, and has already built a useful network of researchers, practitioners and active citizens to discuss, assemble evidence and take action on transport decarbonisation. I believe we can already say that its three year timespan will now be years defined by coronavirus and the social, economic and political fallout from it. We must adjust and respond; and make ourselves as useful as possible. What we can do is not yet clear, but those of us locked down at home will have time to think about the question, and we can use this network as a forum to discuss it.

Here is my first contribution to such a conversation, which I hope will involve many and diverse voices from across the DecarboN8 Network. It is a blog on some of the emergencies I have seen, and how they have interacted with the question of transport decarbonisation. I stress that this is a personal account; and represents my own view and not that of my employers.

TL;DR: we have known for 30 years that there is nothing more important than addressing carbon emissions, but again and again emergencies have come along that have, understandably, been deemed more urgent, and which have pushed decarbonisation down the list of things to do. In our own field of transport, far too close to nothing has been done. Can we, somehow, use this new global disaster to galvanise global action on the climate emergency?

Save the earth from coronavirus and the climate emergency

An old timer’s tale

Born and bred in Bolton, I’m a geographer and town planner who has been in the transport planning game since 1991. I worked for the planning, transport and economics consultancy, Colin Buchanan, in places including Oxford, London, Sydney and Shanghai, then for the Greater London Authority, the Strategic Rail Authority and, since 2005, the Department for Transport (DfT). For the last 7 years or so, I have been mostly working on how transport strategy can support the sustainable economic development of the North of England. That time has included secondments out of DfT to the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and Transport for the North.

Arriving at a university of 35,000 bright young students brings it home forcibly that I might be getting a bit older than I was. I’m still resisting the idea that I’m just an old timer with little fresh to offer, but I’m content to embrace the notion that I’ve now been around long enough to see a few turns of the wheel.

In 1991 we already knew a lot about climate change. Mainframe computers could churn out forecasts of future temperatures and sea levels that looked catastrophic. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, and ‘Local Agenda 21’ became a thing. Agenda 21 was essentially optimistic: through ‘sustainable development’ we could both fix poverty and save the planet.

I believed then (and still do) that transport planning could help balance our needs and desires for mobility with those for nicer, non-traffic-choked places to live in, whilst also saving the planet. I worked mostly on traffic reduction schemes for congested towns and cities.

In 1997, in the UK, after 5 years of civil society campaigning, the Road Traffic Reduction Act was passed. It was the final law passed by a Conservative government that had been in power for 18 years. Local authorities had to either set a target for reducing road traffic in their area, or explain why they considered it inappropriate to do so. As a young transport planner, it felt like a great success for the transport planners’ balanced approach, especially as a means of reducing transport carbon emissions. Then Tony Blair’s New Labour were elected on a landslide, and things were only going to get better.

The third annual Conference of Parties (COP-3) was held in Kyoto in 1997. The world’s leaders signed a protocol: the time for debate was over – global warming was real, man-made, and the world would act through binding agreements to stop it. Lobbyists, who were being paid by the fossil fuel industry to sow the confusion known as climate change scepticism, had been beaten. Or so it seemed.

But in 2000, US Vice-President Al Gore, who knew that climate change was an inconvenient truth that must be faced, was beaten in the US presidential election. The tied election in Florida was called for Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s brother, Texas oilman George W. Bush. The oilmen were now in control of the US Government, and progress on Kyoto stalled.

The world in crisis

I vividly remember the 9/11 attack on New York City in 2001. It seemed to come out of the blue and was deeply shocking. I ran out of the office and bought a set-top aerial for the cathode ray tube TV in my company’s conference room, so we could watch the live coverage on the BBC. Everybody knew that this meant some major change would now happen, but of course nobody at that time could know that it would launch a ‘war on terror’ that has so far cost between one and three million lives and US$1.8 trillion.

On 15 February 2003 ten million people in 600 cities protested against the invasion of Iraq. I expect most of those ten million would have readily agreed that global warming was the bigger overall issue, but if at the time you had asked them, they would have said – quite understandably – that trying to stop the war was the more urgent issue.

I also remember the global financial crisis of 2007-08, which first came to wide attention in August 2007 with the sight of people queuing down Northumberland Street in Newcastle to get their money out of Northern Rock bank; the first run on a British bank since 1866. By September 2008, the world was within days of the complete collapse of the global financial system.

US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s $700bn TARP bailout saved the US banks. Paulson, whose previous job was chairman and CEO of investment bank Goldman Sachs, signed off reclassification of Goldman as a clearing bank 24 hours before it would have gone bankrupt. This move qualified it for a $10bn bailout, no strings attached. Multi-million-dollar bonuses went straight back on the menu. Goldman’s CEO described the company as “doing God’s work”.

The financial system’s cardiac arrest was clearly a big thing, but few foresaw how much the choices made in its aftermath would dominate the decade to follow. Regarding climate change, it was not immediately apparent that the crash would stop progress towards concerted global action on carbon emissions. Arguably, Britain attempted to lead the way – by writing an 80% cut in emissions by 2050 into law, through Ed Miliband’s Climate Change Act 2008.

Barack Obama, who understood what climate change was and meant long term, had entered the White House, and people were getting ready for the world to agree binding emissions reductions at COP-15 in Copenhagen in December 2009. But Obama decided that the post-crash recession in the world economy was the more urgent problem and killed a meaningful deal that bound the USA to make serious emissions cuts.

The world recession saw governments’ income from taxation fall, and public sector deficits became a hot issue. In 2010, two Harvard economists, Reinhart and Rogoff, made a mistake on an Excel spreadsheet and there was a panic about how high public sector debt could safely go.

In Britain, the incoming Cameron/Clegg coalition government’s no.1 priority was to reduce the deficit, both by reducing public sector spending and by leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of growth. In the North of England, the growth agenda was branded as ‘building the Northern Powerhouse’. The UK looked to increase economic productivity using a definition of ‘productivity’ that measured Goldman Sachs bankers as the most productive workers in our economy.

But no sooner had that policy approach started to build up a head of steam than it was itself disrupted unexpectedly – by the Brexit referendum result in June 2016. Yet again, it was not immediately obvious that the ramifications of that shock would dominate the years to follow quite so completely. Despite best intentions, it does seem that the important lesson to learn is that our political system can only deal with one top priority at a time.

In 2016, at COP-21 in Paris, a deal to follow Kyoto was signed. But it placed greater emphasis on what needed to be done than about what would be done. By the end of 2018, the evidence on the ground of global heating as a real and present danger was everywhere – on the ice floes, in the rainforests, in an English country garden. Yet on the political agenda, worldwide, the issue was quiet.

It took a Swedish schoolgirl to remind the grown-ups of what they knew needed to be done, had promised would be done, and had then psychologically buried. In 2019, action on climate change was yanked back towards the top of the political agenda worldwide by youth-led peaceful protests. In the UK, 282 local authorities and the UK House of Commons declared a climate emergency. The British Government declared that it would strengthen its efforts to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement and set a new legally binding target of ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050.

And now, 2020

9/11 and the global financial crisis were giant emergencies, and they both had repercussions lasting longer than a decade. Yet in terms of both human deaths and economic impact, it’s very possible that coronavirus will become the bigger than both. We don’t know now how bad coronavirus will get in the world outside China, but things look bad.

Warren Buffett said about companies in a recession that when the tide goes out, you discover who’s been swimming without trunks. I think we are going to discover that this aphorism also holds for countries and economic systems.

The past 30 years of emergencies teaches us that we can already say two things: first, that coronavirus will squeeze the climate emergency out of the spotlight for a longer period of time than we presently expect, and second, that however bad it gets, in the long term it is still less important than the climate emergency.

The bush fires in Australia at Christmas 2019 were a clear message for everyone to grasp that we are running out of time to act. We can expect more devastating forest fires across Eurasia and North America in the 2020 northern hemisphere summer. We cannot afford for coronavirus to delay action on decarbonising our lifestyles and the world economy.

City lockdowns and the sudden halt of global aviation will slash world carbon emissions by a surprising amount in a period of a few weeks: the data will no doubt come in soon. Those who said deep cuts in carbon emissions were impossible are now empirically wrong. But the case that carbon emissions can be drastically reduced without provoking economic damage remains unproven.

It seems likely to me that the steps already taken to address this disaster will bring the current 40-50 year epoch in the world economic system to an end. What the economic system of the next epoch will be is currently up for grabs. The Wall Street and City of London boys who kept hold of the top perch after 2008 will be hatching a plan for it, although this disaster may prove too big even for them.

People working in health care, social care, supermarkets, logistics, food processing were defined as recently as a few weeks ago as ‘low skilled’, when what was meant was, they were low paid. By mainstream economics’ official definition, they were low productivity. This week they are the key workers without whom we can’t survive. That is a change already – but they remain the low paid. Will they accept that for long?

Outbreak map

Making use of the DecarboN8 Network

How can the DecarboN8 Network respond to this emergency, and make ourselves useful? First, we should recognise that the economic shock is massive, frightening and disorientating – like getting the disease itself. Second, again like getting the disease itself, if we survive it, we will emerge from it.

New ways of life and a new economy are now on the cards, whether we like it or not. The role of the DecarboN8 must be to keep the climate emergency and transport decarbonisation high on the political agenda as we emerge from the aftermath. We must assemble evidence, come up with ideas, and support our members to take action.

Through the DecarboN8 Network, you can play a role and have a voice in that. DecarboN8 will be reaching out to you soon, so watch this space. Together, let us find ways to deliver a climate smart recovery from this severe global crisis which is more equitable and future-proof.

DecarboN8 at Leeds State of the City

The Climate Emergency was the theme of Leeds City Council’s State of the City event this year. Several members of the DecarboN8 team attended to talk with participants about what they felt needed to change in order for Leeds to become a city where you do not need to own a car.

Councillor Judith Blake opened the event by sharing a vision of Leeds as a place where it doesn’t matter where you were born, you should have equal access to opportunities, clean air, transport, and quality of life. The people we spoke to found it easy to imagine how reducing our dependence on cars could help achieve this goal. There was an overwhelming sentiment that a city the size of Leeds should have great public transport. People are ready to ditch their cars in favour of more sustainable options, but they are finding it difficult to shift away from car-use due to the high cost, poor coverage, and lack of capacity on trains and buses serving the Leeds area at the moment. They also feel unsafe cycling and walking in our car-packed city.

DecarboN8 Director, Professor Greg Marsden, shared this presentation with a workshop which looked at transport, challenging participants to think about what changes would be required to make Leeds a less car-dependant city:

Later in the workshop we were asked to map our journeys around Leeds, consider where we could shift those journeys to more sustainable travel options, and discuss what barriers prevent us from choosing those options. Participants spoke of having to travel by car for most journeys because public transport options were unavailable, unreliable, too costly, or felt unsafe. Others mentioned peripheral factors such as their children’s school not providing anywhere for the children to store their coats, making walking difficult, especially in winter.

DecarboN8 also had a stall in the exhibition area, where we provided maps of the Leeds area to participants and invited them to draw their ideal transport future for Leeds. You can see their responses in the slide deck below. Common themes include: the need for circular public transport routes connecting suburbs, congestion charging, a pedestrianised city centre and safe walking and cycle paths.

Keynote speaker, Natalie Fee, from City to Sea shared this quote:

“We change our behaviour when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing”. ~ Tony Robbins

The conversations we had at the State of the City event suggest that people in Leeds care about the climate crisis and are keen to change their behaviour, but at the moment the pain of changing still feels too great. Those we spoke to concurred that to shift this, balance better public transport and active travel options must be extended across the city to provide safe and reliable alternatives to the car, fit for the complex realities of people’s day to day lives.

DecarboN8 is offering seedcorn funding to develop research projects to tackle these kinds of issues. The deadline for applications is 5pm on 27th February 2020.

Decarbonising Transport: Connecting Carbon Targets to Action

Earlier this month we held our first workshop on the theme of Carbon Pathways, ‘Decarbonising Transport: Connecting Carbon Targets to Action’. The workshop was attended by a mix of people from academia, local and national government, industry and civil society. Participants heard evidence from members of the DecarboN8 team and the CREDS Centre (slides for these presentations are shared below) about the scale and nature of the decarbonisation challenge. Through a series of participatory activities, attendees shared their local and professional knowledge to interrogate how carbon budgets can best be used to inform transport policy and modelled possibilities for a low-carbon transport future in a variety of Northern locations.

The morning’s break out activities on carbon targets will directly inform a forthcoming series of policy briefings. The afternoon activities underlined the value of taking place-based approaches when thinking about decarbonisation pathways. The very different urban and rural cases, when considered over both the short and long term, produced some fascinating contrasts. A key challenge will be to produce a supportive policy framework and set of technologies which can encompass and adapt to these differences. Insights and challenges identified throughout the day are already being used to inform DecarboN8’s research priorities.

Introduction to DecarboN8

Professor Greg Marsden

CREDS: The Carbon Briefing

Professor Jillian Anable

Aligning UK Car CO2 with Paris

Professor Kevin Anderson

Making Mobility Futures: Carbon Pathways and Societal Readiness

Professor Monika Büscher and Dr Nicola Spurling

Our aim with this series of thematic workshops is to inform research objectives for future funding calls and to inspire collaboration by bringing together a variety of stakeholders interested in decarbonising transport.

For regular updates about upcoming projects, events and funding calls subscribe to our newsletter. We’ve also recently announced our first round of seedcorn funding. The deadline is 27th February and we welcome applications from all disciplines to develop research projects to help decarbonise transport in the North.

Aligning UK Car Emissions with the Paris Agreement

Contributed by Kevin Anderson

Taking the temperature and equity commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement at face value places mitigation demands on wealthy industrial nations far beyond anything thus far countenanced. Interpreting Paris through the science in the IPCC’s most recent report demonstrates the importance of living within a tight and rapidly dwindling carbon budget.

Provisional work by UKERC and Tyndall Manchester for Decarbon8, estimates a UK Paris-compliant carbon budget, subsequently apportioned to different UK sectors, including car travel. The implications are profound. Even if the UK car fleet is completely decarbonised by 2035, the number of vehicle-km travelled will still need to be cut in half if the sector is to make its fair contribution to delivering on the Paris commitments.

DecarboN8: a new approach to place-based decarbonisation

Professor Greg Marsden, University of Leeds

This blog celebrates the launch of a new research network called DecarboN8. The network is working with Universities across the N8 research partnership, local authorities and industry across the North to develop an integrated test bed and provide open data on carbon to enable researchers to tackle our critical decarbonisation challenge in transport. But why the North and why indeed ‘place’ based carbon planning?

We already know that there are major differences (more than 100%) between per capita climate change emissions from transport between different local authorities (see Figure 1). This reflects the fact that there are different geographies, different transport alternatives and different fleets. In short, there are different problems and different opportunities. We should therefore be thinking about the potential for different solutions in different places.


Figure 1: Major disparities in per capita CO2 from transport (Source: BEIS 2019)

However, it is not that simple. Vehicles rarely reside solely within one local authority area and might require refuelling or maintenance infrastructure in a wide range of places. This is even more true when heavy goods vehicles are considered. So, there are lots of research challenges to be addressed to understand over what spatial scales co-ordination matters and when local diversity of approach will get us to Net Zero faster.

The North is also an interesting test-bed to develop as it is an area which has pan-regional transport governance through Transport for the North which has been developing its carbon knowledgebase and policies. Underneath that there are a range of agencies on roads, rail, regional and local transport. There are significant uncertainties about the sorts of demand futures that might be planned for and, therefore, the right balance between building carbon intensive infrastructure for different modes or investing in better use of existing assets is difficult to assess. Our work will be trying to develop tools to understand those trade-offs and solutions to deal with the highest carbon issues which arise.


Figure 2: Cross-boundary collaboration will be a key issue in the network ((c)Len Williams)

Finally, we believe that the scale of the carbon transition will pose significant challenges to society. The transition risks being very uneven and this needs to be understood, carbon understanding built and communities brought in to the design of policies and solutions if there is to be any chance of a transition in practice. We will be engaging extensively with the public and with decision-makers across the region as part of our research programme.

The network is open to academics from across the UK, local, regional and national government, industry and community groups. If you would like to follow the activities of the network or help develop a transformational trial in the North then please get in touch.