The media: the biggest obstacle to addressing transport emissions

As is so often the case, the biggest barrier to the required step change for us to reduce our transport emissions is the media. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they are pushing electric cars as part of the solution to the climate and ecological crises.

Electric cars are part of the problem. Globally we buy around 75 million new cars a year (2.3 million in the UK in 2019): requiring 12 tonnes of embedded carbon to manufacture, this equates to 900 million tonnes of carbon emissions before they’ve even been driven off the forecourt. Every tonne emitted increases the likelihood of lethal heatwaves, flooding, wildfires, crop failures and famines, in addition to wars over accessible water and habitable land. Yet our media are still continuing as if we should all drive anywhere we like, preferably in SUVs, whenever we want and at whatever speed suits us. This is despite the fact that transport is the UK sector most responsible for damaging emissions globally, and the largest source of noise pollution, which costs the economy up to £20bn annually.

A few days ago I spoke at a local event about how we need the media at the negotiating table for COP26. I’m a firm believer that we need to change our relationship with the media –  we need to bring the media owners into the COP process so that they are involved in creating the solutions. Doing this will change the dynamic of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the relationship of world governments with the press. If world media leaders became involved in strategic thinking and planning, rather than only commenting from outside the process, we would stand a far greater chance of staying within or closer to 1.5°C of global warming.

We are fortunate in Exeter, as we have a world-leading climate department at our local university and the Met Office all within our small city. A senior climate scientist from the university followed my speech with a set of slides discussing social tipping points. I wasn’t surprised to see that his slides were littered with references to electric cars.

I popped a question in the Zoom chat along the lines of “What would positive social tipping points towards using public and active transport look like?” The facilitator asked him my question. It turns out that he has made his life virtually car free: he chose to live in a city with good public transport and an improving active transport network. This allows him and his children to live a lifestyle that isn’t reliant on cars. He also went on to explain in detail how we can remove cars from our lives by investing in public and active transport to make cycling safe and buses and trains accessible.

It seems to me that the university scientist didn’t feel able to include the far more radical changes he has made to his own life as part of the slides about social tipping points. I would argue that this is because the media, which firmly controls the ‘Overton window’ of publicly acceptable political policies, are heavily influencing the conversation about electric cars. We are bombarded with positive reviews of electric vehicles, articles telling us how many fewer emissions they produce compared to diesel and petrol cars and our papers are stuffed full of adverts for them.

Privately-owned vehicles, regardless of what powers them, are a huge burden on society, which is why cities all over the world are working quickly to remove them from their streets. Despite public support for making streets safer – for example, over three quarters of people support measures in their local area to encourage cycling and walking – the public are still being led to believe that electric cars are part of the solution to climate change.

The reality is that using private cars (electric or otherwise) in towns and cities is a high-carbon lifestyle choice, and one we need to ditch swiftly in the coming years.