Climate change and travel

  • Climate and sustainability

Professor Stewart Barr, Professor of Geography, University of Exeter 

In this piece Professor Stewart Barr demonstrates the critical importance of changing our travel habits in order to help tackle climate change. He explores the dilemmas and contradictions inherent in efforts to encourage greater personal responsibility within systems and governance that often do quite the opposite of supporting people to make positive changes in their behaviour.

The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in major changes in travel patterns across the UK and internationally, with shifts in both the volume and modes of transport used. Some commentators argued that Covid-19 illustrated the changes in behaviour that could be realised in the face of a crisis, drawing comparisons with the environment and climate emergency that has been declared by numerous local governments and organisations in the UK.  It has even been shown  that public support for measures to restrict air travel was high during the pandemic, so long as such measures were seen to be effective, urgently required and avoided harm to the self and poorer individuals. Yet the ‘return to normal’ discourse that has dominated political commentaries on Covid-19 suggests that whilst travel for some work and business trips may be impacted by the growth of home and virtual working, the appetite for travel is strongly rebounding.

Environmentally, travel and transport matter because they account for over a quarter of the UK’s domestic carbon emissions. Emissions from personal mobility in developed nations tend to be dominated by private car use and air travel. Much of the political effort so far has been focused on trying to reduce the former in favour of active transport (walking, cycling and running). Yet despite these efforts at behavioural change, the UK regularly ranks poorly against other European countries for walking and cycling  and overseas trips are dominated by air travel, accounting for 85% in 2020.

The question that arises is why changing travel behaviours (be they for commuting, shopping, leisure or holidays) is so difficult, especially given the clear links established by physical scientists between transport emissions and climate change. And by implication, we need to ask what evidence social science has to offer for positive ways forward.

Social scientists have taken several approaches to understand the complexities of travel behaviour and how we might promote mitigative actions. At one scale, research adopting insights from psychology has focused on the role of individuals and the behaviours they perform,  classifying these into three broad groups.

First, there has been a focus on desirable ‘pro-environmental behaviours’, such as cycling or walking to work or travelling by train for international holidays. The goal of this research is to understand the factors that determine participation in specific behaviours and by implication, what interventions may increase participation.

Second, cognitive psychological research has focused on how information about behaviours is processed by individuals through their perception, reasoning, learning and the language used, seeking to understand the thinking processes that lead to travel decisions.

Third, researchers have used segmentation as a way of understanding if distinct groups of individuals have behavioural and attitudinal characteristics that could be used as the basis for developing targeted interventions, for example to reduce reliance on car use.

Psychological research has had a major impact on policy formulation in the UK to promote individual behavioural changes. The development of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA, Framework for Pro-environmental Behaviours, which designed a segmentation model of the UK population and twelve key pro-environmental behaviours, was a foretaste of the major investment by the UK Government in the Behavioural Insights Team, which has used psychological insights to develop policies for promoting changes in a wide range of behaviours.

However, a second body of social science scholarship, which has emerged from the sociological tradition, has highlighted the role of structural factors in influencing our everyday behaviours. This strand of research aims to re-define the very nature of what we understand as travel behaviour and the relationships between socio-economic structures and personal agency. The argument here is that wider changes in socio-economic structures are needed to effect change in personal mobility.

Key to this research trajectory has been articulation of the Mobilities Paradigm, which highlighted that travel is intimately connected to the wider socio-economic and cultural context of personal mobility. In this way, our mobility is regarded as: fluid and constantly evolving; constructed in imaginaries as well as in physical reality; holding meaning for individuals beyond the utility of getting from A to B; and emotively powerful for the individual.

Critical to this alternative framing of travel is that what we may initially view as individual behaviours are representations of mobility practices (Lamers et al., 2017; Watson, 2012). These are “…routine-driven, everyday activities situated in time and space and shared by groups of people as part of their everyday life”. Such practices evolve over time, primarily through the intersection of individual lifestyles and the systems of provision (technologies, infrastructures, economic and planning systems) that privilege certain kinds of mobility over others.

A useful example relates to car use for travelling to and from workplaces. What we might view as a behavioural decision to drive to work each day is instead viewed as the social practice of commuting from a sociological perspective. Kunstler demonstrated how the social practice of commuting evolved in his highly compelling critique of American auto-suburbs, arguing that commuting by car developed historically through the coalescence of favourable structural factors, including the subsidies provided to car makers, public investment in highways (and divestment from public transport), the land-use model that favoured suburbanisation, and the associated cultural value of car and suburban home ownership.

Using this perspective social scientists utilising the mobilities paradigm have highlighted the governance contradictions that lie at the heart of the dilemma of how to reduce carbon emissions from personal mobility. On the one hand, governments have launched a range of campaigns and interventions to reduce personal car use and promote environmentally sustainable alternatives. Yet the structural and cultural signals contradict these messages. Continued suburban house building, poor public transport provision and the cultural privileging of the car all work against models of higher-density, lower-mobility active travel as the basis for 21st Century travel in the UK. Indeed, the systemic privileging of air travel through the tax and planning system act to stifle efforts to develop low-carbon tourist travel.

Social science research does present us with ways of positively re-conceptualising transport and personal mobility for a low-carbon future. First, there are excellent examples from the European continent of how the need to travel can be reduced through the land-use planning system . Meanwhile  the strategic development of Freiburg in Germany using a model based on privileging public transit and creating walkable and cyclable urban spaces has had a profound impact on mobility in the city. Indeed, urban design can play a critical role in suppressing car use and re-claiming the city for pedestrians and cyclists.

Second, there is growing interest in developing ‘slow travel’ as a response to both climate change and the negative impacts tourism can have on places and communities. The rise of air travel as the dominant mode of international tourist travel has benefitted from vigorous marketing campaigns, highly integrated products and services, dynamic pricing and government support. Yet there is the potential for developing low-carbon, slow(er), higher-quality experiences for tourists that make travel part of the holiday experience.   Many of the barriers that remain are structural, associated with weakly integrated booking systems and the territorial nature of railway operations.

Third, there are opportunities for viewing low-carbon travel, be it for work or holidays, as something which benefits our own wellbeing. There is considerable research from the health sciences that demonstrates the value of active travel on physical health, but we should also recognise the mental health benefits provided by higher-quality urban space and building design, which in turn leads to the uptake of active travel . Similarly for holiday travel, Fullagar  argues that:  “Slow tourism and travel potentially offer a way to think through the relationship that exists between environmental concern and pleasurable experiences that can sustain lifestyle change and transform highly consumerist practices.”

Travelling differently to reduce our impact on the climate therefore requires systemic change and social scientists urge thinking that compels us to ask why we have come to travel in ways we do and what value it brings to us. This means that low-carbon travel may be very different, but it has the potential to bring benefits to the wellbeing of our daily and tourist lives.

Photo Credit: Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

About the author

Stewart Barr graduated from the University of Exeter’s Geography Department in 1998 and continued his studies at Exeter undertaking a PhD exploring household waste practices. Building on this research, he worked for two years in the Department as a post-doctoral researcher on an ESRC-funded project entitled ‘Environmental Action in and Around the Home’. He became a Lecturer in Geography in 2003, Senior Lecturer in 2008, Associate Professor in 2012 and is now Professor of Geography. Within the Department Stewart undertakes research in the Environment and Sustainability and Spatial Responsibilities Research Groups and he teaches modules at all levels of undergraduate study.