By: Ross DouglasAutonomy, CEO and Founder

During our short pause, UMW received plenty of suggstions on topics and issues that our readers would like to see us tackle. One of the issues that commanded most attention is the way that cities are implementing solutions to reduce the encironmental impact of transportation. In this Opinion piece, Ross Douglas, CEO and Founder of Autonomy explains why no technical solution will work without a serious reduction in car ownership and car use. He explain how Paris under Anne Hidalgo is at the forefront of implementing such a solution and, in the process, radically transforming itself.

COP26 has put climate change at the top of the agenda once again. The predicament the world is in is summed up in Japanese energy economist Yoichi Kaya’s formula:

CO2= Population x GDP/Capita x Energy/GDP x CO2/Energy

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The formula is meant to show that emissions are a function of four key factors: population size, GDP per head, energy used per unit of GDP and carbon emissions per unit of energy. World leaders can help move the needle on all four of these factors but, as it turns out, it is politically risky to tell people not to have children and not to get rich.

What this means is that  there are two main levers left to move said needle: decarbonization of the power grid and improved efficiency of electricity use.

And then there is also carbon sequestration, which is not covered by the formula but which Boris Johnson included in his opening speech at Cop 26:  “It’s about coal, cars, cash and trees” National governments are hoping that we can eliminate global CO2 emissions (some 32 billion tons a year) by replacing coal with renewables, switching to EVs, protecting existing forests and growing new ones.

The problem is that we are so good at finding new ways to use energy that the increased renewable energy supply is less than the total increase in energy demand so that we are now burning more fossil fuels than ever to feed the machine. (EIA report)

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo

Unlike national leaders, who are reluctant to suggest lifestyle changes for citizens, city authorities are being more pragmatic about our options for getting to net zero. Carlos Moreno, a scientist, coined the term ‘15 minute city’, where work, schools, shops and entertainment are within a 15-minute walk or ride from people’s homes. The main pay off of the 15-minute city is making car ownership redundant.

Paris mayor Annie Hidalgo, emboldened by being reelected to a second term, has made as one of her top priority goals to make her city the world’s first post-car metropolis and intends to continue to expand the use of bicycles promoting this form of active mobility as the preferred alternative.

Plan Velo: Act 2 will see the installation of 30,000 bike parking stands (1,000 reserved for cargo bikes); 40,000 new secure cycle parking spaces near rail stations; and incentives for the private sector to install a further 50,000 spaces. This massive transformation will be achieved by spending €150 million Euros in the first phase and a planned €250 million in the second.

As it was to be expected, Hidalgo has her detractors, local motorists among them. A New York Times article bemoaned Paris facing “anarchy” from cyclists. But if you want to radically reduce carbon emissions, there is no better way than swapping a large vehicle with a smaller one that can do the job. According to a new report by consultants Steer for the Urban Transport Group (UTG), “Over 100 million car and taxi trips made in city regions each year could instead be on e-bikes if the Government is able to deliver its target for mode shift to cycling”.

And bicycles do more than move people. Electric cargo bikes deliver parcels 60% faster than delivery vans and cut 90% of carbon emissions.

Electric vehicles are obviously preferable to internal combustion vehicles in reducing emissions but they will have close to zero effect on flattening the Keeling Curve (which records CO2 concentration in the atmosphere).

Paris, France without cars

Paris without cars

Whichever way you do the maths, using two tons of mined and processed materials to move an 80kg occupant is carbon and resource intensive. Instead, many cities are promoting an asset light approach to urban living. One that will radically reduce our emissions, open up public spaces and encourage active mobility.

According to WardsAuto (an industry newsletter), the world’s car fleet surpassed 1 billion vehicles in 2010, to reach 1.2 billion today and project 2 billion by 2030. The reason for this growth is that the developing world is playing catch up and following car ownership patterns of the west. The US has 250 million vehicles for 330 million people. China would need 1 billion vehicles to match that rate of ownership.

An asset light approach to climate change would replace the vast majority of those vehicles with other forms of transport including trains, trams, busses, shuttles, cargo bikes, bicycles and scooters. In short, while the reduction of carbon emissions by various technical means might be a good step forth, the fact is that the hour requires much bolder actions and that includes rethinking our cities and the way we move in them. We need to radically rethink mobility so as to  move away from car ownership if we are to have any hope of getting to net zero by 2050.