The unsung heroes of “using less”

A few days ago, a person I consider a friend posted a work success on Facebook. In her role she had helped reduced a substantial number of car commuter journeys – and had good evidence to back this up.

Was this celebrated? Yes, by those who knew her. But others lambasted her achievements. Why? Because she worked for a local authority and as such their “tax payers’ money” was being “wasted”.

If you have ever worked in sustainable travel you will know what an uphill struggle it is to get people happily and permanently out of their cars. It is a niche role, because getting people to do less is an unsexy sport – whether it is driving or consuming. Waste management champion Zoë Lenkiewicz summed it up on Twitter this week; “I think waste prevention strategies are ‘praised but reluctantly applied’ because nobody makes money from reducing consumption. It’s the way of the world.”

Helping people drive their car less does not compare with the kudos of opening a shiny new piece of transport infrastructure or launching an all-electric bus fleet. For starters, there is nothing obvious to pose next to for the photo-call. And in the past the role has often been done by people, pardon the pun, who don’t actually walk the walk themselves. Driving less was something we expected other people to do, not us. This is not so in the case of my friend mentioned at the start of the article, who is one of the most passionate sustainability professionals I know.

Yet, simply driving less has an instant impact on terms of cutting carbon emissions. In terms of tackling the climate emergency, doing less of something that adds to the sum total of greenhouse gas emissions is surely a no-brainer. And in the case of travel it is absolutely essential. Whereas UK carbon emissions have fallen in some areas such as industrial and home energy consumption, for private vehicles they remain stubbornly growing.

Much discussion has been made of the role of electric cars as the saviour to our current predominantly fossil fuel guzzling greenhouse gas producing fleet. But just replacing one thing with another isn’t going to help on its own. Plastic? That helped stopped the ivory trade and look where that got us. We need a system change around the way we live – not just the substitution of one product for another. We need to cut our consumption. I sold my car last year and honestly, it has been a pain occasionally, but it was the right thing to do. I feel like a huge burden has been lifted from me. Not only can I manage without my own car, but the resources that were contained in that metal box are better off being used elsewhere.

Greenpeace is one of the organisations that has indirectly sounded the alarm bell over the country’s fascination with electric cars as the solution to our driving problem. In its quest for a strong UN Global Oceans Treaty it is calling for an absolute ban on deep sea mining. Yes, right now, across the globe people are prospecting areas of the planet, the deep-sea oceans with hydrothermal vents that are thousands of years old, to plunder them for precious metals and minerals. The predicted boom in electric vehicles is mentioned specifically as one area where these precious resources will be used. Yet a car spends most of its time unused – so r the deep seas would be mined to make a vehicle that will spend most of its time parked in a garage or on the street. Continued private car ownership and use on the scale we have now is not sustainable – whether or not those cars are electric. It is not just a vehicle’s tailpipe emissions that are the problem – but the huge volume or resources that go into making it.

So, on behalf of everyone in the prevention, reduction and minimisation business (yep it does NOT sound sexy) carry on with what you do because this is where the real bread and butter change needs to happen. Oh, and if you come up with a great photo shoot idea be sure to get in touch.

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