Permanently capturing these early gains is going to be a challenge, partly because emissions rise and fall in step with economic activity, which has been severely reduced by the pandemic, and partly because consumer behavior on sustainability remains contradictory. The emissions due to private cars only fell by 51%, less than for any other major mode of transport except for ferries. The share of total emissions due to cars has actually risen, up to 65% now from 59% pre-COVID-19.
Where convenience and speed once won out over eco-concerns, now the prospect of catching COVID-19 seems to be pushing climate concerns to one side in the minds of consumers. With traffic levels already rising again, governments and transport authorities are faced with a trend that could undo decades of steady progress on sustainable mobility, leading to gridlocked streets, failing public transport networks and even worse emissions.
Reflecting the rise in local activism fueled by more people spending more time at home, cities and local neighborhoods are taking it upon themselves to try to shape an alternate and more palatable version of the future. Several London boroughs have begun to roll out “Low Traffic Neighborhoods,” whereby residential streets frequently used as shortcuts by through traffic have been restricted to pedestrians and bicycles only. In Paris, 650 km of emergency cycle lanes created during the pandemic will be permanently added to the city’s transport network. And Copenhagen is planning an entire low-carbon economy based on biomass, wind and geothermal power. The intention is to be zero carbon by 2025 and to create 35,000 new jobs in the process.
Due to the preference for private transport, efforts to speed the replacement of internal combustion engine (ICE) personal vehicles with more sustainable alternatives are being scaled up. Larger incentives to purchase electric vehicles (EVs) already form part of the EU COVID-19 recovery package in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Austria, reducing transport-related emissions while also boosting jobs and the industrial economy.
The nascent micromobility sector may also become more widely embraced by city authorities. Quick and cheap to roll out, requiring minimal infrastructure and highly sustainable, hired e-scooters could rapidly become a viable and low-infection risk option for shorter journeys that would otherwise be made by car or public transport.