What are you NOT doing to fight the Climate Crisis?

Just do less

What are you doing to fight the climate crisis? That question drives me nuts. Are you driving an EV? Are you buying sustainably manufactured products? Are you powering your five bedroom detached house with renewable energy? These are the questions you hear all the time.

What you never hear is “what are you doing less of?” Are you switching from working full time to just a couple of days a week? Are you buying less clothes, less shoes, less tech, less stuff? The focus almost always seems to be on “sustainable consumption”, which is basically an oxymoron. Yes, we need to consume certain things to survive, but that’s not what people mean when they say that. It’s about continuing to over-consume things we don’t need, but in a slightly less bad way than before. That’s not going to do anything to stop our climate predicament getting out of control.

We’ve been hearing recently about 4 day work weeks and UBIs. I’m certainly in favour of both of these policies, but while they promise positive things for quality of life, mental health and reducing poverty; they don’t really do anything about our rampant over-consumption. A 4 day work week with the same pay as now would reduce emissions from commuting, but presumably it would lead to an increase in leisure consumption and long weekend travel.

As far as a UBI, I think that concept is something that would have been great if it was implemented decades ago. Now, it feels like far too little, too late. It’s not about providing people with a great, simple, high quality of life. It is intended to allow people to actually get by when they’re unemployed. It’s basically a decent level of unemployment benefit similar to what you can get in numerous countries now.

I think what we need now is more like a full universal income that can provide people with everything they need to live a healthy and sustainable life, rather than an unemployment safety net. And I think that should be the way everyone lives. The only people who will work in this scenario would be people who make a real positive difference to society, and they wouldn’t be doing it for money. We would all live in a broadly similar way, with different hobbies, interests, opinions and so on to differentiate us. We could get rid of currency entirely. I’ve talked about that before.

The general point I’m trying to make is that it’s the big things that we don’t talk about reducing or eliminating. To be fair, we do hear people talking about eating less meat and dairy or flying less, or even eliminating those things entirely (very rare when it comes to flying). But when do you ever hear people talk about how we need to have less kids to reduce the population, or live in the smallest homes we can? I don’t hear it. Sometimes you see people talk about the insane emissions of the richest 1%, and how we need to tax them 99%; and that’s true. But people never talk about how not only do they need to live like the rest of us; but that we all need to live much smaller and simpler lives than almost any of us do currently.

Many people get frustrated when activists like Greta, scientists like Paul Beckwith, or nobodies like me tell them how bad our situation is. They want to know what they can do. Well, here you go: just do less. While it’s true that certain elements of sustainability require you to do something differently, like ride a bike or use reusable containers, fundamentally it always comes back to living simpler, smaller, and more local lives. All of the things we need to do differently come naturally once you’ve made that decision to just do less.

It’s really that simple. The media, politicians and neoliberal economists want to make it sound so complicated, but the truth is that it couldn’t be simpler. Just do less.

We don’t drive at 200mph, so why do we need HS2?

Cool looking trains, but they’d still be cool running at 125mph on current lines

The reason why Shinkansen trains are accepted in Japan is because they were built at a time when everyone bought into the fast life idea. Practically no one questioned it. The economic benefits, GDP and all of that. Those things that a rapidly increasing contingent of us now know to be unnecessary, and are actually killing us.

It was at a time when we didn’t have connectivity like we do now. How would you justify high speed rail now when you could take a limited express or a sleeper service and work on the way with wi-fi or 5G? The answer is, you don’t talk about it, or you make up some bullshit about it taking strain off the existing network. Well, I’m no railway engineer, but I imagine that building more standard lines in our current railway system would also do that for an infinitely lower cost. Both environmentally and financially.

Who says “it would help the economy if I could drive my car to Manchester at 200mph”. Not even Jeremy Clarkson would say something so ridiculous. Well, I don’t think he has anyway. And who would want to take a coach at 200mph? I definitely don’t. There are enough coach crashes around the world as it is, and I can’t imagine it would be a fun ride, if such an insane bus actually existed outside the realm of video games.

So, we don’t need HS2 because the speed benefit makes no sense if it’s not applied elsewhere (not that it makes much difference to journey times anyway); and because of the connectivity and remote working we now enjoy. But what about the environmental impact? We know that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, and we also know that the route of HS2 just happens to trample on 32 ancient woodlands directly, and another 29 indirectly. And considering the fragility of these precious ecosystems, it’s unlikely that those 29 will survive at all.

We can’t lose this. Photo credit: waronwildlife.co.uk

If HS2 was necessary, which it isn’t; the obvious question would be why didn’t they build alongside existing motorways where there is often a lot of space and certainly great grid connections? Is it because nature is effectively worthless under this economic system and therefore an easy target? Is it because the rich business travellers who would be frequenting this service would like a nicer view out of the windows than a motorway? Is it because our leaders don’t care about nature at all and sadistically would enjoy trampling on it? My guess it’s a bit of all three.

And then there’s the climate implications of all of this. We know that in order to give ourselves a chance of survival in the face of the climate catastrophe, we have to slash consumption by as much as possible, and we have to live slower and smaller lives. We will travel less, and when we do, we will go slower and on the ground unless absolutely essential (visiting family overseas for example, not for business travel). We’re already seeing a resurgence of sleeper trains across Europe, and we need to see it here too. We do have a couple of services domestically, but we need to see more; and we desperately need sleepers that use the channel tunnel and serve the major European cities.

But obviously the climate implications of HS2 don’t end there. There is the immense amount of emissions generated during the building of the railway in the first place; but time is also a huge aspect. Because we only have a handful of years at the most to slash our emissions to as close to zero as possible; we can no longer take on decade long mega projects like this (or Hinckley Point C for example). There will be the odd exception, such as a massive upgrade to our existing railway infrastructure that can’t be completed in just a few years. But generally speaking, we have to think as short term as possible. This sounds counterintuitive since we’ve always been taught growing up to think about our long term future. Unless you’re in business in which case short term profit over long term stability has been the name of the game. But as long as the Earth’s climate is in the disastrous state it is, we have to think day by day with a single-minded focus on how to slash our consumption, and therefore our emissions as much as possible. Very little else matters. The byproduct of which will be providing a better, cleaner, fairer world to everyone, and allowing ourselves a chance at a future. In addition, we will be protecting and restoring our natural areas and our precious wildlife. It’s easy to do. It simply requires doing nothing.

Just like with Covid, we solve the world’s biggest crises by just slowing down and stopping. Lounging around and being lazy can stop runaway climate change? If you’re anything like me, that’ll sound pretty appealing.

Bike Parking needs to change fast

In my last post, I wrote about how comprehensive bicycle infrastructure networks, for the most part, are no longer necessary at this late stage of our climate crisis. But bike parking is a totally different story. We desperately need quality bike parking facilities.

The Dutch understand this and are investing massively, and have been for years. Which is why a new, state of the art facility that accommodates tens of thousands of bikes is opening seemingly every week. They understand that secure parking is almost (if not equally) important in getting people cycling as providing the safe routes themselves.

I don’t know if the Dutch are rolling these bike parks out at the immense clip that they are because they know how critically short we are on time to prevent climate tipping points; but they certainly are acting as if they do. As I mentioned previously, almost everything we do now as a world society to tackle the climate crisis has to be possible within a few years. That’s why we should ban cars now instead of copying the bike network of the Dutch. But there is no other option when it comes to parking. You have to design and build these facilities, which takes years of design, planning and construction. At the rate Britain is going, we might have one of these facilities, on the scale of the world’s biggest in Utrecht, open in 2026. And I’m far from convinced that it will actually happen. We have to move fast and put the money into this immediately. If we focus on bike parking as our transport priority, we could potentially have them in every major town and city by 2024 or 2025.

In order to achieve something like this, you would need to completely flip the transport budget upside down. The government has their £27.5 Billion road building program, but cycling is only getting a less-than-pathetic 1% of that amount. Any government serious about having a future on this planet would immediately swap those around, but of course almost no governments would do that. But let’s just pretend they would and imagine a better world for a minute.

You might be wondering in this hypothetical scenario what we do between now and 2025 when all of these bike parks are up and running. Do we all just not ride bikes in the meantime through fear of getting our pride and joy stolen? Obviously, we can’t afford to wait, and we need to limit theft as much as possible. The data for June this year showed a 50% spike in theft compared to the same month in 2020, near the end of the first wave of covid. Utility trips (and therefore bikes locked up) dipped by 20% in 2020, and even though it will have picked back up in the second quarter of this year, it wouldn’t have accounted for that huge uptick in thefts. It seems more likely that the demand for bikes and the manufacturing shortage has lead thieves to up their game in terms of organisation and “professionalism”. With highly skilled thieves taking advantage of the lack of secure parking, authorities have to move while we wait for the Utrecht style bike parks to come to fruition.

Smaller scale secure parking can be introduced quickly in residential and commercial urban streets, for example. And it’s also possible for existing buildings to introduce new or improve existing bike parking facilities for staff or customers. We’ve seen train stations introduce swipe card entry and CCTV to existing bike storage rooms for example. And I think folding bikes are going to play a big role in urban areas. They are always a great idea, and with the lack of secure parking, they’re essential to the growth of cycling in the next several years especially.

Cargo bikes are going to be increasingly huge in terms of the transport mix as we go forward, and they will also present a security challenge. However, their sheer size and weight will help deter thieves, and the most recent models often come with immobiliser type functions where they won’t roll unless they’ve been unlocked by the owner. I also think commercial cargo bikes won’t be effected due to them being either in constant use, or stored at the business premises. Cargo bikes for individuals and families will be more of a challenge in the short term; but as mentioned above, they are much less appealing to thieves than regular bikes. And let’s not forget, you can (and should) insure them like you would insure a car, except it’s a lot less expensive. Even if the worst was to happen, you could just get another one, and it would still be far cheaper than owning and running a car.

Bike hoops outside SpashPoint Leisure Centre in Worthing

But what we really need to get away from is shit bike parking. Don’t get me wrong; bike hoops are clearly the least bad of the options, but they’re not great; especially when they’re uncovered. Front or rear wheel racks are basically useless and they are not designed for all of the different tyre widths you see. No new (or relatively recent) development should have uncovered racks of any sort. SplashPoint Leisure Centre (pictured above) is the most egregious example where I live. They installed quite a few hoops, to their credit. But could you really not afford to at the very least cover them up?

When I was in Cambridge a couple of years ago, I visited a new station north of the city. It had hundreds of bike loops, and they were covered by a large roof, to at least keep the rain off. At that time, I remember being astounded that they would do anything that cycling friendly at a medium sized train station in the UK. That’s what living in West Sussex does to your expectations. But from now on, I think it is the absolute bare minimum we should expect to see at transport hubs.

And then there’s the other local destinations. Convenience stores, doctors surgeries, dentists, libraries etc. So many of these places have rusty old bike racks that hold maybe 4 or 5 bikes if you’re lucky, but they also have a car park for 20 or 30 cars. If we somehow did wake up from our climate slumber tomorrow and decide to ban cars, you’d have all sorts of problems with bike parking at these locations, 1 or 2 miles from home.

We clearly need a two pronged approach to this critical problem. Small, covered, sometimes secure parking in residential areas and local amenities, and massive investment in Utrecht style parking for tens of thousands of bikes in urban centres. We can’t wait any longer for this change. Cycling rates will stay relatively stagnant until something happens to show people that cycling really is respected as a form of transport, like it is elsewhere.

It’s time to stop asking for Bike Infrastructure

At COP26, all I’ve heard from cycling people are calls for world leaders and governments to not forget that cycling is essential for any kind of sustainable future plan; whether that be the fantasy one they mean (green growth capitalism), or one that actually works (degrowth, equal society).

But what they almost always forget is that there’s a reason why the countries that have bad (or no) bike infrastructure are in that predicament. It’s because of the corrupt right wing governments we have, and the society that has been moulded by them and the media over decades. These governments are not going to fundamentally change now, and what change that does come from the system we’re under will be far too slow to make any difference in the grand scheme of the climate crisis.

Everything society does now has to take into consideration how little time we have to act. For example, no nuclear power, new airports or airport expansion. No new roads, and no new high speed rail in small countries. Anything we can’t do in less than a handful of years should be off the table, with a few exemptions where necessary. This of course includes cycling. We have potentially just a few years left to drastically cut emissions to as close to zero as possible and stop the planet breaching all of the climate tipping points. The only way that is possible is to immediately ban cars and use the roads predominantly as bike lanes. We will need to install some Dutch style infrastructure on certain roads where vans, trucks and buses will remain, but that can be done within a year or two, so it meets the criteria. Swapping every petrol car that exists now for an EV, while also building Dutch style bicycle infrastructure networks covering every busy road in every town and city around the world would do almost nothing to slow down the climate crisis; and it would take far too long anyway. The fact that this is presented as a legitimate solution to reduce emissions at COP26 by the cycling lobby is frankly ridiculous.

The Glasgow conference is a joke, as I’ve mentioned previously, and anyone who knows anything about the climate crisis will tell you the same. Every day that we refuse to accept the reality that capitalism, economic growth, fossil fuels, and the reign of cars dominating our lives must end, the harder we make it for ourselves. The harsher the cuts have to be. And they’re already incredibly steep as I type this.

Seeing as I’m watching the T20 World Cup Cricket right now; an analogy would be that we’re batting second and chasing 300 to win. The highest ever first innings score was 278, and the highest ever successful run chase was 245. That kind of puts our challenge in perspective. Everything we do, we have to hit for 6, and we have to do it fast because the runs keep adding on. Imagine if every day another run was added to the target. Technically the maximum score you could achieve if you hit every ball for 6 would be an absurd 720. But considering how unlikely that is, you quickly approach a tipping point after which the chase is mathematically impossible, no matter how many sixes you hit from 120 balls. I’m not going to get into extras like wides. That would be a bit much.

But just look at what we’re doing at COP26. We’re playing test cricket in a T20 when we’re chasing that record total. We’ve not scored yet and we’re in the 4th over. We’ve almost wasted a quarter of the innings and haven’t even got going. The coach will be losing his mind in the dugout. “Smash it you idiots! Stop blocking and dinking it around!” he’ll yell like a madman. You might say I should shut up about cricket and get back to the point. And that would be fair, but I honestly feel like this could be a good way to explain our crisis to a lot of normal people out there. Use analogies that they can relate to rather than just throwing a bunch of technical climate terminology at them.

Literally anything is worth a try at this point. Nothing we’ve attempted so far seems to get people to actually understand and care enough to hold the governments and corporations to account.

To get back to the subject of bike infrastructure, it’s going to be tough for cycling people to hear the counterintuitive message that infrastructure no longer helps us. I mean, many of these people have been saying this for decades now. But if we’re to move forward and get the best outcome for cycling, and humanity as a whole; we have to throw away everything we thought we knew about how societies operate. Once we all do that, we can create a new system from scratch that actually works; and finally bin this terrible one that’s been ruining everything for the last half century or so.