This year’s intensely hot weather across the world, with its consequent rash of wildfires from Hawaii to Canada and around the northern hemisphere, presents humanity with an urgent and challenging call for effective action on climate. Sadly, our millionaire prime minister has met this challenge with a firm commitment to add as many tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as his donors can possibly manage. His Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition has responded to the crisis with a climate policy that has all the incisiveness of a limp lettuce leaf, and our media generally is far more interested in Westminster gossip and trivia than in the future of our planet as a healthy home for humans and other life forms.
What can we, ordinary people who understand the climate crisis that looms over us, actually do? We have to accept that it is unrealistic to expect Sunak’s government to take meaningful action on climate change, although we must continue to call out their failure. We must continue to reduce our personal energy consumption and keep on reviewing our practices at home and at work; but these personal actions, although vital, are a drop in the ocean. We have no alternative but to take non-violent direct action (NVDA).
The current mode of NVDA, practiced by Just Stop Oil, although understandable, is arguably counter-productive, since it just supplies right wing journalists and broadcasters with a plentiful supply of mud to fling at the whole climate movement.
So what can we do, if slow walking is annoying to right wing influencers, and genuinely upsetting to people trying to get to hospital appointments?
Why not give up on slow walking, and instead, take a look at slightly slower driving?
Let me say right away that, yes, we should not be driving at all, but for many of us, there is as yet no practical alternative to the motor car, at least until we have much better public transport. Active transport (walking and cycling) is still the best way to do short journeys, but the fact remains that since many of us are pretty much forced to drive, it would be better for us to get into the habit of driving more efficiently.
We would achieve this by keeping our speed down, because the energy needed to push a vehicle through the air increases in proportion to the square of its speed. This means that drag (and therefore fuel use) increases exponentially the faster we go. Road transport produces about 15-20 per cent of our total C02 emissions.
The 50/60 campaign sets a voluntary speed limit of 50mph on national roads and 60mph on motorways.
The actual numbers are a bit less certain, because they include factors such as vehicle shape and air temperature (fuel economy is worse in cold weather because the air is more dense and viscous). Department for Transport figures show that:
- driving on the motorway at 70mph uses around 25 per cent less fuel than driving at 80mph;
- driving at 60mph instead of 70mph will use 9 per cent less fuel; and
- driving at 50mph will use 5 per cent less fuel than driving at 60mph.
The same figures apply to the C02 coming out of the exhaust pipe. Of course, the savings only apply when we are on long journeys; at lower speeds we need to drive more smoothly, with less violent acceleration and braking, in order to reduce fuel consumption and CO2.
The advantage of the 50/60 campaign is that there are several other benefits from reduced speed, over and above the savings in C02 output:
- There are lower fuel bills for motorists, which is very relevant in the current cost-of-living crisis;
- there will be fewer, and less severe, motor vehicle accidents, which will mean fewer deaths on the road, less misery, and fewer severe injuries, which, in turn, will relieve the burden on the NHS and caring services;
- fewer accidents will also lead to reduced demand for new vehicles, and so save CO2 emissions from motor manufacture.
Driving at lower speeds is a more relaxing and pleasant experience, so you arrive in a happier frame of mind. Most importantly, as the campaign gathers supporters, it will deliver a message to everyone that man-made climate change is a real and serious problem for everyone on the planet, and that the car in front is doing something about it.
Lower national speed limits have been used in the past at the time of energy crises, and climate change is nothing if not a massive, long-term energy crisis. In the 1973 oil crisis the UK brought in a national 50mph speed limit.
The government of the Netherlands has been forced by its own laws on air pollution to impose a national speed limit of 62mph. On the other hand, German speed freaks are screaming along the autobahns at velocities limited only by the power under their right foot. If they were restrained to just 75mph they would save 1.9 million tonnes of C02 a year – which is the same as the emissions of 60 (yes, that’s sixty) of the lowest emitting countries. Coming down to 62mph would save as much as the emissions from 85 of the lowest emitting countries.
Despite all these advantages to our campaign, there will naturally be objections from the fossil fuel lobby, from some motorists and the ‘libertarians’, but these groups will always object to any measures to meet our climate commitments, and so their protestations can be viewed as routine, and safely set aside. Indeed, their protests can be used as a vehicle to expose the role of libertarians and neo-liberals in delaying all climate action.
In short, there is a full set of incentives for us to knock 10 mph off our top speed.
We can signal why we are driving slowly by using this 50/60 disc in our rear window.
In conclusion, the beauty of this 50/60 campaign is that it is a money-saving, CO2-saving, nationwide energy-saving measure that is high profile, reduces air pollution, injuries and deaths caused by traffic, and gives a signal to the nation that many ordinary people are prepared to lead the way to a sustainable economy.
A disc that clings to the rear window of your car is available by emailing your address to firstname.lastname@example.org and sending a donation to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.