Menu Close

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

Flying is dirty, but few are willing to change. USAF

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.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 186,800 academics and researchers from 4,994 institutions.

Register now