Climate emergency: an interview with Professor Greg Marsden

Gred Marsden

We must commit to doing ‘our bit’ if we are to have any chance of reaching the Government’s Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 and help minimise future global warming. Professor Greg Marsden at the renowned University of Leeds’ Institute for Transport Studies thinks we are nowhere near ready to hit this target, as too little progress has been made. We asked him what will get us there.

Greg Marsden is one of the UK’s leading voices on transport carbon emissions. He is regularly called upon by governments and green lobby groups alike to impart his knowledge on the science behind shifting towards less carbon-intensive forms of transport.

Marsden sees recent “extreme weather events” as being a catalyst for the current political and social urge to “do something”. He is hopeful that the climate change agenda is now being taken as seriously as London’s Great Smog of 1952, which was so thick that it stopped trains, cars and public events. The smog was thought to have led directly to the immediate death of around 4000 people and a further 8000 in the weeks afterwards. The resulting 1956 Clean Air Act introduced a raft of measures to reduce air pollution and a mandate towards smokeless fuels in cities.

If the British Government is bold enough to do its bit through legislation, then what must local government, business and individuals do? Marsden says there is little guidance on how to reach Net Zero. Yet many MPs are already calling on the Government to bring the 2050 target forwards and establish what we must do and by when.

There is strong and growing commitment throughout the UK, with 278 Local Authorities, from Edinburgh to Essex declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’. Many councils have created climate budgets and action plans. Most recently Oxford Council committed £19 million to tackle climate emergency though measures such as 400 new electric vehicle charging points and a zero-emission bus fleet, as well as incentivising private taxis to go green.

On electric vehicles and technology, Marsden believes that technology alone cannot solve the problem; “Electric vehicles are great but still use carbon to construct, maintain and dispose. We need to use technology to help us utilise cars better through, for example, car-sharing apps.” Marsden explained how a new model of car-sharing is being trialled in the City of York, where workers committed to ride-sharing to the hospital can have access to a pooled car in the evenings, to reduce individual ownership.

Marsden is adamant that Governments throughout the world would be wise to rethink how many cars are needed in their towns and cities? “If we are serious about the 2050 target and pathway, we will have to restrict ownership as well as use”. He says, “It would be an own goal if we didn’t simultaneously tackle the equally important issues surrounding car use - road safety and quality of life.” It’s here that Marsden sees the ultimate prize - a transformation of our cities to align with Net Zero healthy lifestyle choices.

One can argue that the core business of transport planning companies (including Steer) is providing climate change solutions every day to every client everywhere throughout the world. Marsden says it’s our job to convince clients “the art of the possible”. “Transport professionals have known for decades what can be done to positively improve people’s day-to-day life in our cities, towns and villages, whether that’s completely reimagining public space or introducing a workplace parking levy.” Yet it is only now that we have the political will, together with compelling climate science to prove that action must be taken. Businesses with a global reach must bring new workable Net Zero solutions into the fray.

Following his PhD. in Road Traffic and Pollution, Greg Marsden spent a formative year working in Santiago, Chile during 1999-2000, when air quality reached such dangerous levels as to become a public health hazard. Marsden witnessed first-hand how the government quickly introduced a ban on cars using the main routes in the city, on an odd and even number plates restriction. The scheme was accepted by residents and the business community because they understood the problem.

Will it really take public health scares like in Santiago for us to take such drastic measures in order to reach Net Zero? Marsden warns, “Let’s hope not! We know there’s a lot to do, we have the means, and for the first time, we may have the business and political support to make it happen.”

The world is waking up to the reality of climate change. Severe flooding hit many parts of the UK earlier this year, leaving people out of their homes; many won’t be able to remain for several months. The horrendous spread of bush fires on the other side of the world has been directly linked to the impacts of climate change.

Increasingly our clients are addressing the challenges of both building resilience to the potential impacts of climate change and reducing emissions to try to minimise future global warming. We are building our low carbon and climate resilience team and seeing increasing interest in our work from across our client base and across Steer. Our team continues to work with the committee on climate change and numerous academic partners on the next UK climate change risk assessment due to be published in 2022, and at a more local scale we are working with Derry City and Strabane District Council on a climate change risk and opportunity assessment of two major regeneration projects.

The UK’s commitment to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 has catalysed declarations of climate emergency and similar Net Zero commitments from local authorities and many other organisations.  With transport choices having a big impact on emissions, and economies facing major change as a result of Net Zero, clients are increasingly asking us to advise them on their journey to decarbonisation. We are increasing our capacity and capability in this area and recently have been commissioned by a London Borough to conduct their climate change and transport strategy.

The world is changing, and we all need to change with it to help people, places and economies thrive.


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