Posted by: wesleyjohnston | July 19, 2012

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Northern Ireland Transport

The DOE(NI) has just published its annual stats on greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland. This is actually a summary of a much larger UK-wide report (see page 90).

The good news is that Northern Ireland has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 15% since 1990. The bad news is that this is still quite far away from the target set by the Stormont Executive of 35% by 2025.

The Contribution of Transport

There is no denying that transport contributes a big slide of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for a fifth* of Northern Ireland’s total in 2010. Almost two-thirds* of this came from cars, meaning that around 13.5% of greenhouse gas emissions from Northern Ireland come from cars.

Greenhouse gas emissions from Northern Ireland, 2010

Transport is, of course, of fundamental importance to society, the economy and recreation. It cannot be dispensed with. The challenge is how to make transport less polluting.

The figures also show that total greenhouse gas emissions from transport have risen by 26% over the past 20 years, as summarised in the graph below.

Sourced from: “Greenhouse Gas Inventories for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: 1990 – 2010”, July 2010, AEA/ENV/R/3314 Issue 1.

Two important points must be made about this:

1. This is considerably less than the rise in road traffic levels in Northern Ireland, which have risen by anywhere from 50% to 100% over this period, depending on what road you are talking about. This suggests that cars are becoming considerably more efficient and less polluting.

2. Secondly, the rise in greenhouse gas emissions from transport started to level off during the early part of the 21st century, peaked five years ago (2007) and has since been declining, falling by 7% in just three years. This can be partly accounted for by the recession (proving, incidentally, the link between traffic and economic activity), but it does continue a much longer-term downward-curving trend.

There is, therefore, no undue cause for panic. Greenhouse gas emissions from road transport are currently in decline. They are not soaring upwards, as some would have us believe, and have not been for some time. There is definitely an issue with the amount of greenhouse gas emissions coming from transport, but at this point in time the problem is not getting any worse.

The Challenge

Nevertheless, there are challenges ahead. If transport is to contribute its share of the target of a 35% fall on 1990 levels by 2025, it will need to fall by around 50% from the current value. This gives us just 13 years, which would mean an annual decline of 5% per year from now on. This would mean a steeper rate of decline than we’re seeing now. A number of factors could unite to make such a decline possible.

The first point to make is that there is absolutely no need to stop using private cars. For many journeys cars are, and will remain, the only viable choice, or just the preferred mode of transport. We don’t have to go berserk and launch a crusade against cars in order to live more sustainably. Cars offer increased freedom and choice to hundreds of thousands of people every day. The phrase “live more sustainability” is, fundamentally, about living. A two-pronged approach of developing viable alternatives to the car, and improving cars, will deliver the best outcome.

Some journeys, such as those that involve commuting into densely occupied places such as city centres, or journeys between major population centres, could be transferred to buses or trains, and efforts are underway in Belfast to achieve this. This will only happen if there are sufficient incentives in terms of low fares and fast journey times.

For those journeys where the private car will remain the preferred choice of transport, and that will probably be the majority of journeys of over a mile, the best outcome would be a big shift towards alternative-fuel vehicles, assuming of course that the alternative energy source is not itself generated from fossil fuels. This will require further incentives to reduce the price of such vehicles, and improved infrastructure to support it.

There is a small but growing alternative fuel car market in Northern Ireland. For car manufacturers, the rising price of fuel is making customers increasingly aware of fuel consumption, so we are now getting cars with ever-better fuel efficiency coming onto the market.

Better cars and better public transport, combined, is the best way to achieve a more sustainable future.

*Transport = 20.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Cars = 66% of Transport emissions. Figures for Northern Ireland.

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