The bicycle as climate hope

The bicycle as climate hope

by Robert McLachlan, CAN Board member

What role can cycling play in Aotearoa’s climate action? This question tends to prompt two extreme responses that are so far apart as to seem contradictory. On one hand, a bicycle is so obviously a simple, durable, and ultra-low emission technology, that to compare it with a car is almost ridiculous. The bicycle is a role model for what sustainable technology can be. On the other hand, our cities and transport systems are built around cars, and the mode share for cycling is very low. Even a rapid increase in cycling would only displace shorter trips, which is not where the bulk of emissions lie.

Both of these pictures are true. Putting them in context means facing up to the fact that transport emissions form a massive part of our climate problem. Transport contributes 40% of our gross domestic CO2 emissions, and it needs to come down sharply – but we’re also locked into the present system by our habits and our infrastructure, while still essentially travelling in the wrong direction. It’s not an easy problem to solve.

We shouldn’t really be starting from here

Our car-based system and high travel demand gives New Zealand high transport emissions, at 3.3 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. In 2012 we cycled on average about 80 km per year each. But even the Netherlands, where cycling mode share is 27% and each person bikes 900 km per year, still has transport emissions of 1.9 tCO2/person. This is far in excess of what is compatible with a safe climate. Dutch cycling only contributes 8% of total distance travelled, while car ownership and driving has steadily increased through the decades. The distance cycled is still only half what it was in the 1950s, and has not increased for many years. (These figures come from a 2019 article from David Hembrow’s cycling blog A View From the Cycle Path. David is originally from Hamilton and writes from the small town of Assen, Netherlands. He bikes 6000 km a year which, as he says, is the minimum level of activity recommended for health.)

A safe future requires massive system change

Where should we be headed? The study 1.5ºC Lifestyles from the Hot or Cool institute shows the way, comparing emissions from six different countries. I’ll give the example of Finland which is similar in many ways to New Zealand. Personal consumption emissions in Finland are 10.4tCO2e, while the limit for a 1.5ºC future – compatible with the Paris Agreement and signed into law in New Zealand – is 2.5t by 2030, 1.4t by 2040, and 0.7t by 2050. Of this, transport is currently 2.8t and should reduce to 0.4t by 2030 and 0.1t by 2050.

Of course, these are massive reductions, and the way to achieve them is via the Avoid/Shift/Improve framework, which is also now the planning framework in New Zealand. Avoid trips, shift them to less polluting modes, and improve the remainder. All three changes need to operate at once and support each other.

The 1.5ºC Lifestyles study found that cycle commuting, car pooling, public transport commuting, and living 20% closer to work could each contribute a reduction of about 0.4tCO2. Going car-free contributes 1.6tCO2. That is, to get the needed reductions, very high adoption of very sweeping changes is needed.

The picture in Aotearoa New Zealand

As you probably know, our current emissions goals are much less ambitious than this. But they still involve reducing transport emissions 41% by 2035. Focussing on ‘Improve’ alone (e.g. by electrifying the fleet) cannot do that.

Furthermore, we are quite likely to have to ramp up our climate ambition in the future, as expected under the Paris Agreement. It is sometimes thought that climate action has been ‘solved’ by the Zero Carbon Act, but that is certainly not true. What we have is a goal, and a framework in which to work towards the goal. But every step on that journey will be contested and will likely throw up unexpected difficulties. Just at the moment there are major questions surrounding the carbon price and number of units in the Emissions Trading Scheme; the free allocation to industry; trees; agricultural emissions; and how to meet our separate target under the Paris Agreement, the Nationally Determined Contribution.

One argument in particular I want to smack right down as hard as I can. That’s the one where people say, “It doesn’t matter, it’s in the ETS”. For example, it’s been argued that someone switching from a car to a bike doesn’t lower emissions, because (under the system of carbon budgets), it just frees up some carbon that can be emitted by someone else.

This argument is absurd, but it seems to have some staying power. I wrote a whole article with David Hall rebutting it from the (voluminous) international literature. But you can see its absurdity easily by turning it around: it would mean that leaving your diesel SUV running in the driveway 24/7 wouldn’t raise emissions either (since someone else would have to cut theirs to make room for your folly).

The point is that one tonne of actual emissions is a different thing from one unit in the ETS. The latter is an abstract economic instrument intended to guide our overall pathway. The ‘cap’ on emissions is not a firm cap, and we don’t know yet if the carbon budgets will even be achieved, let alone the NDC (our Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement – a pledge to halve emissions by 2030). The ETS is a hybrid price/quantity system of, unfortunately, quite overwhelming complexity that is subject to continuous lobbying, negotiation, and tinkering. (But it’s still better than nothing.)

We can do better, and we will

We know that change is possible. Six countries in Europe (Germany, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, and the Netherlands) have cycling mode shares over 10%. Germans cycled 440 km each in 2017, and the German cycling plan is aiming for 1080 km by 2030. (Thanks to Covid, an astonishing 51% of Germans had a cycling holiday as their main holiday in 2020.)

An influential study of urban travel in Europe involved 10,000 people in six cities keeping a travel diary over a period of two years. Regular cyclists (one or more cycling trips per day) had 84% lower emissions (1 tCO2) than non-cyclists. Shifting just one trip per day from car to bike lowered emissions by 67%. As personal urban travel makes up nearly half of all transport emissions (the rest is freight, intercity travel, and aviation), these are significant reductions. The authors also say:

Mean total CO2 emissions of 3.18 kgCO2/day were much higher than the median (0.81 kgCO2/day)… confirming a positively skewed distribution of emissions. In other words, a relatively small share of individuals was responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions, a finding that is very much in line with the evidence on unequal carbon emissions distributions.

On the other hand, I find the counterargument, that short trips are not where the bulk of emissions lie and that lower emissions are not the only or even the main benefit of cycling, also quite compelling. A study from the University of Auckland modelled the effect of shifting 5% of all short (<7 km) car trips in New Zealand to cycling. The vast majority of the benefits (valued at $200m in total) came from improved health due to cycling – 116 lives saved per year. The fuel saving was $37m, while the CO2 reduction of 50,000 tonnes would be “worth” only $4m at current prices.

There is, however, one further climate benefit of cycling, which should also be considered. At present we import around 300,000 cars a year, with embodied emissions of around 3 million tonnes of CO2. Lower rates of car ownership would save emissions even before the cars are turned on, in addition to the monetary and foreign exchange savings. For this to come about will likely require more and better cycling and public transport and public intercity transport, as well as tackling car dominance directly – the stick, not just the carrot.

So there is no getting away from the big picture, or from the complexity of transport. Wrapping it all up, I want to close with the hopeful, holistic words of Kirsty Wild and Alistair Woodward, from their article “The bicycle as constructive hope: Children, climate and active transport”:

Children are experiencing an increase in so-called ‘eco-anxiety’. Along with others, we argue that children need more concrete, meaningful opportunities to feel they can make a difference in climate. In this article, we contend that bringing back the bicycle, and the opportunities for independent and active mobility that it affords children, is an important form of climate action for young people. We assert that as well as providing sustainability and wellbeing co-benefits for children, cycling can help bolster the neighbourhood resilience and social cohesion that will be key resources for communities adapting to new climate risks.


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