Why we need to change our travel habits to tackle global warming

20 May 2020

Lockdown has transformed urban areas. Cities are quieter, air is cleaner and more people are walking or cycling around their neighbourhoods. The pandemic has had tough consequences for many, but it has also shown the potential positive environmental impact of making a rapid transition to low-carbon transport and eliminating reliance on fossil fuels.

Air pollution, which kills more people globally than smoking, contributes to almost 64,000 deaths a year in the UK.

Particulate matter — such as tiny particles of soot, smoke, dust or allergens — is released into the air as a result of transportation or the burning of fossil fuels for energy. These particles can then be breathed deeply into the lungs, penetrate the bloodstream and cause health problems such as increased risk of stroke, heart disease, chronic lung disease and acute respiratory infections.

According to Asthma UK, asthma is exacerbated by poor air quality in about two-thirds of sufferers because pollution particles can irritate the airways, putting them at greater risk of an asthma attack.

“Vehicles without tailpipes leave much less pollution in the air, so electrification will have direct and immediate health benefits for the population; that’s guaranteed,” explains Julian Allwood, professor of engineering and the environment at the University of Cambridge.

“But air pollution won’t be driven to zero, because some [of it] results from particulates from brakes and fragments of rubber coming off tyres.”

The transport sector is responsible for 28 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, a figure that has dropped by only 3 per cent since 1990. Most emissions from petrol cars comprise carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, while diesel cars emit particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, which are particularly bad for air quality.