Air QualityBiofuelEnvironment & ClimateFossil Fuels

How will the UK’s adjustments to their transport needs impact on GHG emissions & the environment?

By May 19, 2020 No Comments

Following the Prime Ministers announcement on Sunday 10th May 2020 laying out the road map for the first phase of the easing of British lockdown restrictions; the media & social media channels have been alive with speculation.

However, nothing has really changed aside from:

  • If you can return to work & it is safe to do so, you may.
  • You may drive any distance to a place of exercise.
  • You may meet with one other member of another household as long as you adhere to strict social distancing.


  • You may exercise as much as you like, including sports, but only with members of your own household.

The overwhelming message remains’ the same being that UK citizens need to remain at home as much as they can, to follow the regulations & fundamentally save lives.

Therefore, the new mantra for the UK has shifted from ‘Stay Home, protect the NHS, Save Lives’ to ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’.  This has however been met with an onslaught of misinterpretation across the UK, for the most part fuelled by the media’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism.

However, one message which has been received by the UK is that where possible we must avoid public transport to reduce the spread of COVID19. This cannot be possible for all UK citizens & therefore the wearing of face coverings in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible, has been introduced.

Therefore, the question has to be asked, if we are being discouraged from using public transport, how are people meant to travel to & from work, exercise or volunteering? The simple answer seems to be, by car & by road.

For as long as can be remembered, the UK Government have been discouraging car & road usage as part of their Net Zero road map to reduce emissions & improve air quality & encouraging the use of public transport, cycling or walking.

Air quality in the UK & the excessive amount of particulate matter released into the atmosphere, is, according to Public Health England:

Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure. There is strong evidence that air pollution causes the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer, and exacerbates asthma. (1)

These numbers & figures are a staggering reminder of the damage GHG’s continue to do not only to the environment, but to the inhabitants of planet Earth.

As we have seen dramatic drops in the emissions in the UK & across the world since the COVID19 pandemic lockdowns were instigated. However with the easing of restrictions comes a new need for those who cannot work from home, to return to work & with the Government directive clearly dissuading workers from using public transport; this means that the use of personal vehicles, for most, is the only other option.

For many many years now Government & environmental groups have been trying to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads & in doing so, reduce GHG emissions being released into the atmosphere. Therefore, with no vaccine currently available for COVID19 & the world still aware that COIVID19 is still infecting hundreds of thousands every day; the only option for a global workforce, let alone the UK, is to use personal vehicles.

The Government paper ‘Decarbonising Transport – Setting the Challenge’ does show that the emissions from car usage have dropped in recent years, as cars have become more efficient:

Cars today have lower emissions, with the average car in 2018 emitting just over 20% less CO2e for the same mileage than the average car in 1990. However, total fleet GHG emissions from cars have fallen just 11% since 2001 to 68MtCO2e.

Motorists are making the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) and there are record numbers of them on UK roads. In 2019, the UK was the third largest market for ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs) in Europe and is a global leader in their development and manufacture.  (3)

Therefore, for many who are still mindful of their environmental impact, what does this mean for the choices available for personal vehicles?

Dolphin N2 recently explored the changes in transport use in the UK during the COVID19 crisis. During the UK lockdown, the sales of bicycles for example, have increased exponentially, with a 200% increase in bicycle sales from UK emergency workers taking advantage of the Government ‘cycle-to-work’ & retailer Halfords seeing a 23% share increase, due to bicycle sales. (2)

The choices the British people make about their future modes of transport, can have a considerable impact on the environment. The Government has identified in it’s paper ‘Decarbonising Transport – Setting the Challenge’ (3) the GHG emissions by vehicle in an average journey from London to Edinburgh in 2018:

  • Train 29kg
  • Petrol Cars 120kg
  • Diesel Car 115kg
  • Electric Car 0kg
  • Bicycles 0kg

(Car emissions exclude tyre and brake wear. Train emissions are based on an average for diesel and electric trains; if a route is fully electrified, emissions would be lower than those presented.) (3)

With this knowledge in hand, the Decarbonising Transport paper also identifies that only 3% of the domestic GHG emissions in 2018 were attributed to buses & coaches & a further 1.4% of the UK’s domestic transport emissions were attributed to passenger rail & freight. The Office for National Statistics ‘Road transport & air emissions’ data released September 2019 states that:

…road traffic in Great Britain, measured in vehicle miles, increased by 29% from 1990 to 2018, to stand at 328 billion miles in 2018 (Figure 1). Just over three-quarters of road traffic in 2018 was from cars and taxis. (4)

With the Government directives encouraging personal vehicle use for getting back to work & enabling those not in work to drive as far as they like to places of exercise; it will be interesting to follow how the GHG emissions change over the next weeks & months & if this change in lifestyle for the most part, will have a greater impact on the environment & the UK air quality.

Written by Katy-Jane Mason for & on behalf of Dolphin N2.