Green Mobility is a policy choice

Technology, electric cars, and individual choice will not achieve needed carbon emission targets: brave policy makers are required, according to Cyrille Médard de Chardon, Camille Perchoux and Veronique Van Acker, researchers at the Urban Development & Mobility Department of Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER).


The technological development and adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles appears to be finally bringing carbon emission reductions to our mobility, suggesting an appropriate use of the term ‘Green Mobility’. With roughly a quarter of European carbon emissions caused by transport, such technological innovations are often promoted as mobility solutions.

Currently, the use of the Green Mobility term is frequently embedded within discussions of individual choice, the replacement of existing personal vehicles with electric alternatives, and walking, cycling, and mass transit. Unfortunately, purchasing our way to ecological sustainability through new automobility technologies (i.e. electric cars) is not possible. This should give you pause. Re-evaluating how the Green Mobility term is being used and what it should mean is necessary to resolve this contradiction. Green mobility is loaded with vague meanings mainly through the ‘green’ term, that has been loosely used wherever carbon emissions may plausibly be reduced through new products or actions. Focusing on the electric car as an example, the reduction of emissions compared to combustion engines strongly suggests this as an adequate Green Mobility option. However, the replacement of conventional cars with electric cars will still exceed our carbon budgets. This promotion of goods and practices associated with carbon emission reductions, but which are insufficient in limiting climate and ecological catastrophes, is the crux of the problem. In simple terms, Green Mobility is being applied where it will not lead to ‘green’ futures.

The term Green Mobility is rich in positive associations and of economic value for the sale of goods and services while providing support to policy makers inaugurating new plausibly-ecological policies. Distressingly, the combination of technologically innovative products imbued with sophistication and coupled with convincing conscience-clearing environmental benefits are popular with decision-makers, manufacturers, and consumers alike. This explains the converging popularity of the term Green Mobility. Insidiously within this process, however, is the devolving of carbon reduction responsibility from those with actual power to the individual’s level where alternative practices are largely ineffective or inaccessible, resulting in inaction.

For a transport mode to be adequately labelled as Green Mobility it must respect the carbon emission constraints. Active transport, which is non-motorized, such as walking and cycling, as well as mass transport, are Green Mobility options. If we wish to transition to a Green Mobility society this will mean a very different transportation regime to the dominant car-dependent lifestyle. The carbon derived energy usage of the car, even electric cars, given their energy source mix and manufacturing emissions, do not fit within our required energy budgets to maintain future ecological sustainability and societal well-being. Green Mobility must thus not only be a shift to low emissions modes, but requires a drastic and inconvenient reorganization and reimagining of how our cities and lives are configured. However, as our society has become entrenched in automobility, making any suggestion to reduce car access is a direct limit on individual freedom for many. How is such a transition then desirable or possible?

Before re-evaluating how to transition away from energy intensive mobility, namely the personal car, it is helpful to recall other negative impacts we accept in exchange for the accessibility they provide. The freedom cars provide for some, is also an imprisonment. Personal cars solve the problems they have created, specifically our car dependent land use patterns. Further, car culture, regardless of propulsion type, is deteriorating urban spaces with parking, inefficient roads, and congestion, as well as reducing our quality of life through car related fatalities and injuries, air and noise pollution, individual and public transfers of wealth outside of Luxembourg (e.g., to oil producers and car manufacturers), and negative mental and physical health. So while putting an end to rampant automobility feels repulsive to perhaps most people, consider that the current situation is already a malady to many.

With ever decreasing carbon budgets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, relying on proven and present Green Mobility is necessary. Green Mobility must then not only mean a historic investment in non-motorised active travel, through walking and cycling infrastructure and land use changes, and an even greater investment (for Luxembourg) in mass transport, such as buses and rail. It also means an ever increasing constraint on the personal car. These changes cannot occur without policy support in sectors outside mobility and at multiple levels of governance. Individual choice to use active and mass transport modes is not feasible due to  infrastructure, safety, time, and monetary reasons for many people. Reduced travel distances and frequency are required to allow Green Mobility, necessitating a reconfiguration of our spaces and activity locations. Currently, individual travel mode choice is a fiction for many. Without a disruptive policy-led Green Mobility infrastructure plan the car remains the constrained travel mode of choice.

A Green Mobility future must paradoxically be much less mobile, in terms of travel distance or speed, but can be more active, healthy, social, and pleasant. Such a change will provide population-wide health, quality of life, and economic benefits. The dominant requirements for the rise of Green Mobility however is policy driven land use change, the reallocating of urban space from individual cars to active and mass transport, and other practices present in mixed-use and 15 minute neighbourhoods. Clearly this process is not feasible through individual action, but requires political action.

In the context of Luxembourg there exist some advances in Green Mobility facilitation, but the scale is insufficient while counterproductive infrastructure policies continue to be developed. For example, highway expansion of the A3 highway to France is set to finish soon, while rapid urban expansion, to address the housing shortage, is being extensively deployed within newly developed car dependent neighbourhoods. Finally, despite Luxembourg’s impressive and growing regional cycling trails, urban bicycle infrastructure continues to feel insufficiently safe or practical for most people.

While moving away from the car may seem impossible or unpleasant it needs to be considered as inevitable. Deniers say that the cost of such a transition is too high, but the reality is we cannot economically afford to not act and not meet our carbon emission goals. The future we are moving towards is one of crushing summer heat, droughts, forest fires, flooding, unprecedented storms, food instability, illness, mass migration, and supply chain and societal instability. While this alarmist perspective is criticized for encouraging unproductive panic, relevative inaction lubricated with promises of change is no better. Regardless, we must not compare a policy-led Green Mobility society and transition away from the personal car, and all that it implies, with our current situation, but with the very unpleasant future we are driving towards.

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