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Climate gap report: transport

The next ten years will be crucial in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown. Yet, according to new research by Ethical Consumer, we are not cutting emissions fast enough across any of our key lifestyle areas - including our transport. So what changes do we need to make when it comes to travel and how far are we from getting there?

Rob Harrison and Josie Wexler discuss the findings from Closing the Climate Gap 2022: An annual report on progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK.

Travel accounts for around 25% of our total consumer emissions. In 2022, the Climate Gap report found that emissions from travel are reducing, but .. this has mainly been due to the pandemic, not system change.

The report highlights three key actions for consumers if we are to reduce transport emissions:

  1. Choose electric vehicles
  2. Reduce air travel where possible
  3. Reduce road travel where possible

In this page, we explore these actions: why they are necessary, how far we are from them, and the changes that businesses and governments can make to ensure we achieve these goals. We call on consumers to not only reduce their own emissions in the areas we have identified, but to also consider getting engaged with political campaigns trying to persuade the government and companies to take some of the actions identified too.

Transport and climate change

The table below summarises what we think are the three most important opportunities for decarbonisation in the transport impact area: driving less, flying less and choosing fully electric vehicles.

Transport, including goods transport, accounts for about a quarter of our emissions. Of this, the breakdown is about:

  • 40% is cars
  • 24% flights
  • 12% vans
  • 11% HGVs
  • 9% shipping
  • 4% trains and buses.

Decarbonising transport involves a mixture of reducing travel, switching modes (e.g. from planes to trains), improving vehicle efficiency, and switching fuel. Most vehicles can be electrified, but for those that are too heavy or go too far or too fast, there is hydrogen, biomass or synthetic fuels.

The CCC's Balanced Scenario (used throughout our report) includes:

  • Battery-electric vehicles replace all sales of conventional cars, vans, motorbikes and plug-in hybrids by 2032.
  • Some efficiency gains – e.g. the fuel efficiency of aviation improves at 1.4% per annum, compared to 0.7% in the baseline.

Behaviour change is modest. In the CCC's figures there is no absolute reduction in car or aviation travel, although growth is slower than that anticipated by the Department for Transport. In none of its scenarios is there a huge reduction.

The CCC’s justification for not modelling a larger reduction in aviation is partly that the UK Climate Assembly, a citizens group chosen to be representative of the population, was reluctant to reduce aviation significantly.

While surface transport and shipping emissions fall towards zero by 2050, the CCC’s scenarios leave significant ongoing carbon emissions from aviation. There is a 40% reduction on 2018 levels in the Balanced Scenario. The rest has to be cancelled with land-based net negative technologies.

Actions required by consumers

  • Replace your car with an electric car as soon as it makes practical sense to do so.
  • Any travel reduction you can do will help.

Our article on the transport hierarchy looks at the climate impact of different forms of transport for similar journeys.

Actions required by government

The CCC advises:

  • Sales of new fossil fuel cars, vans and motorbikes should be banned by 2032.
  • There needs to be a rapid rollout of charging infrastructure.
  • The electricity network and smart charging systems must be upgraded to deal with the electric load.

Actions required by businesses

The CCC advises:

  • Continued work on improving efficiency.
  • It is too early to tell which zero-carbon HGV technologies will emerge as marketleaders – manufacturers must continue developing electric and hydrogen fuel cell HGVs.

Current situation: 2022 report findings for heating

The report card below summarises our key findings on transport, and covering around 25% of our total emissions. It looks at how much we must cut our emissions by by 2030 to meet UK targets on transport, and whether we are moving fast enough towards these goals. It then highlights the key actions we must - as consumers, governments and businesses - take.

Transport report card 2022
  Annual emissions from cars Annual emissions from aviation

Electric car registrations

Consumer-related actions needed in the CCC’s ‘Balanced Scenario’
(from a 2019 baseline)
c.40% reduction on 75 million tonnes CO2e c. 13% reduction on 38 million tonnes
97% by 2030
Where are we in the most recent figures?

56 million tonnes CO2e (2021 pandemic)

15 million tonnes CO2e (2021) 12% (2021)
The current climate gap. What is still needed?

11 million tonnes

to remain below 33 million tonnes post
another 85% of registrations
What were the figures from the previous year? 52 million tonnes (2020 pandemic) 16 million tonnes (2020) 6.6% (2020)
Are we moving fast enough? Yes, but ... Yes, but ... Yes, but ...
What does government need to do? Decarbonise electricity supply; sense check road building; support
walking, cycling and public transport.
Halt airport expansion; frequent-flier levy; encourage efficiency gains; aviation tax reform. EV purchase subsidies; support rapid rollout of charging infrastructure; mandatory zero-emission sales targets.
What do companies need to do? Sell more electric vehicles; continue innovating on decarbonising HGVs; reduce distance travelled. Replace business travel; increase plane efficiency; develop sustainable aviation fuel. Switch to electric cars and vans; invest in charging infrastructure.
What do consumers need to do?

Electrify; reduce distance travelled; switch to lower carbon travel where possible.

Reduce flying if possible.

Replace cars with a fully electric vehicle as soon as possible.

Where are consumer intentions? 43% willing to reduce car travel. 36% willing to fly less.

40% willing to buy an electric car.

c. = circa or approximately; CCC = Climate Change Committee

Comments on the 2022 report card

The last few years of transport emissions have been dramatically reduced by the pandemic, so they won’t be representative of longer term trends. The green squares on our table are unlikely to remain there long.

However, electric car sales are healthy and the CCC says that they are ahead of its trajectory (12%, vs 8% in its trajectory), although car sales in total in 2021 were 600,000 below what they were in 2019, due to pandemic-related supply chain issues. Charging infrastructure still needs to improve, but intent to buy an EV has almost doubled over the past two years – nearly half of those intending to purchase a vehicle soon now say they plan to buy a hybrid or electric. [1]

Aviation emissions rose by 10% between 2010 and 2019, and collapsed in the last couple of years due to travel restrictions. It is too early to tell what will happen to them next.

The CCC’s plan for reducing aviation emissions is a mixture of contained growth and technology. The Government’s plan is just technological, which the CCC thinks is risky.

The government has recognised the need to reduce traffic growth, and to improve public transport, but has not really created a coherent set of policies to do so.

Feedback on the report from our transport workshop

Greg Archer from the pan-European campaign coalition "Transport and Environment" was optimistic about the move towards electric cars. He predicted that with improvements in car manufacturing regulations, electric charging networks, and their growing popularity will eventually result in them being priced more affordably within the next few years. He felt there was a lot of deliberate misinformation about electric cars. "They are not perfect, but they are better and last much longer. There are also a lot of new regulations coming into the car industry which are improving supply chains and the material used."

Jenny Bates from Friends of the Earth said that it was also clear that we needed at least a 20% cut in car miles by 2030 to meet our climate targets and to reduce air pollution. Money earmarked for airport expansion should be spent on alternative forms of transport so that people have better choices. "We need to tell it like it is. It's urgent now. But its still possible to avoid the worst of the climate crisis. It is worth lobbying your councillors, your MPs and taking part in political action. It is a mix of act but hope."

Access the 2022 report

A summary and PDF of the 2022 report and the other impact areas is available on our campaign page.

You can also download the 2021 report as a PDF.

The PDF versions include the evidence behind all this information.

What is the Climate Gap report?

Ethical Consumer's first Climate Gap report was published in October 2021, to track progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK. The report helps identify how consumers, governments and companies can work together to help fix the climate crisis.

Called 'Closing the Climate Gap', the report's aim is to track the gap between our current combined consumption emissions and where they need to be by 2030. A second key aim of the project is to produce a simplified list of key actions for consumers, companies and governments.

The report has four sections on the areas where our lifestyle climate impacts are the biggest: food, housing, transport and consumer goods, covering 75% of combined total consumer emissions. It compares where consumer behaviour is in these areas against 2030 targets from reports issued by the UK Government's own Climate Change Committee (CCC). Read more about the Climate Change Committee's targets on our campaign page.

We will be updating the report annually, to provide science-based targets for consumers each year.

Handy advice on climate actions you can take

We are creating series of articles highlighting actions you can take for the climate on the areas of food, heating, transport and consumer goods - see the links below:


1. CCC, 2022 Progress Report to Parliament

We would like to express gratitude to the Ecology Building Society for its sponsorship of the 2022 Climate Gap Report.

Ecology Building Society logo