Political taboos leave politicians unwilling to take steps to cut transport emissions

An interesting, thought provoking article in The Conversation, looks at the way in which issues to do with reducing our desire for travel could be seen as “taboo.”  For the EU, CO2 emissions from transport make up about 30% of the total. However, while the automotive and aviation industries try to convince us that technology will cut emissions, the growth in demand will far outweigh these small improvements. If politicians challenge our desire for ever more travel, they can be punished by powerful lobby groups, by peers, or at the ballot box. On air travel, a high proportion is done by the most wealthy. But the political classes and opinion formers are themselves in this category, of hypermobile people with a “distinct unwillingness among this section of society to fly less.”   Increasing the cost of flying disproportionally affects lower income groups, yet does not seriously impede the mobility patterns of frequent-flying elite, who enjoy flights “subsidised through the exemption of international air travel from VAT.”  The airline industry and its lobbyists work hard to instil the idea that “mobility is freedom”, and that to restrict such mobility through regulation is nothing short of an infringement of that liberty; another taboo.
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Political taboos leave politicians unwilling to take steps to cut transport emissions

14.8.2014 (The Conversation)

Transportation continues to generate a large proportion of emissions worldwide, even as emissions from other areas of the economy fall. In the EU, transport accounts for around 30%  of CO2 emissions, and is rising. It’s the transport sector that is set to derail the EU’s overall emission reduction objectives.

Globally, the number of cars is expected to double by 2035, and the air travel industry is expecting its passenger volumes to triple by 2050, yet there has been little political acknowledgement of this issue.

In the meantime, the airline and automobile industries go to great lengths  to convince politicians and the public that technology alone can solve this problem, while the weight of scientific evidence suggests technology cannot rein in transport emissions sufficiently. There’s growing evidence  to suggest we need tougher regulation on planes and cars, but there’s no political willingness to introduce restrictive policies.

Our research suggests  policies that would support sustainable transport have been largely ignored by European policymakers because of a number of “transport taboos”. These are issues that constitute a fundamental barrier to implementing any significant transport-related climate policy, ignored because of their political risk. If politicians violate a norm by grappling with one of these hot potatoes – even if the science clearly supports it – they can be punished by powerful lobby groups, by peers, or at the ballot box.

In our paper , published in the Journal of Transport Geography, we identify a series of transport taboos. Aircraft and cars are the most important from an emissions perspective.

Speed limits

One example is from Germany: even though opinion polls are in favour of a speed limit on the autobahn, and the importance of speed limits for reducing carbon emissions is well documented, no party is willing to touch the issue because of the outrage that would ensue  from car associations, manufacturers and some drivers.

High fliers

Another taboo is the matter of who contributes to the volume of transport on our roads and in our skies. This is skewed heavily towards a small number of people, mostly from higher income classes, who are responsible for a large share of the overall distances travelled. This is particularly evident in the context of air travel. The travel patterns of the highly mobile need addressing, yet those from the political classes in power tend themselves to be included in this hypermobile group. Paradoxically the most environmentally aware are also among the most mobile, yet there is a distinct unwillingness among this section of society to fly less.

Tax the rich

A further taboo is that most measures to reduce transport emissions in the EU are market-based, and so will disproportionally affect the less wealthy. For instance, car taxes are based on the CO2 performance of individual models, but this does not take account of income inequalities. A SUV might use twice the amount of fuel as a small car and be taxed twice as much, but its driver is likely to earn several times the average income. Lower income groups will shoulder a heavier relative burden. Tackling this taboo carries the same kind of political risk as increasing income tax rates in the higher tax bands.

Similar issues apply in the context of flying, where taxes disproportionally affect lower income groups, yet are not high enough to seriously impede the mobility patterns of frequent-flying elite. These continue to enjoy the effects of market distortions, where their flights are subsidised through the exemption of international air travel from VAT. And so the costs of flying, one the most environmentally harmful modes of transport, remain largely externalised. The airline industry and its lobbyists work hard to instil the idea that “mobility is freedom”, and that to restrict such mobility through regulation is nothing short of an infringement of that liberty; another taboo.

If we are to have any chance of slowing the rise of transport emissions in the EU and worldwide, these and many more transport taboos need to be confronted and overcome. We need more research on these taboos and how they operate, so that strong supporting evidence can be put before political leaders. Even then, any change will need to be publicly palatable, and building that support will be hard. After all, for a great number of people this will still be an inconvenient truth.

http://theconversation.com/political-taboos-leave-politicians-unwilling-to-take-steps-to-cut-transport-emissions-30537

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Paper:

Title: Why sustainable transport policies will fail: EU climate policy in the light of transport taboos
Author: Stefan Gössling, Scott Cohen
Publication: Journal of Transport Geography
Publisher: Elsevier
Date: July 2014

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