6 June 2018

How big is the sustainability challenge that lies ahead for travel, and what does this mean for the way we live and work?
Our sustainability team at the Lancaster Environment Centre tried out to find out.

If I asked you what travel will look like in 2050, what would come to mind? Streets filled with autonomous cars, Elon Musk’s hyperloop stretching out between cities, or putting your feet up on the sofa in your haptic suit and a set of VR goggles? Judging by a quick google image search, whatever you’re thinking it’s probably shiny.

Or maybe you’re thinking travel could look largely like it does today? After all, 2050 isn’t all that far away: depending on your age, there’s a good chance you’ll be here to see it.

What we do know is that in the short 30 years that separate us from 2050, travel needs to be more sustainable. (Most) of the world has committed to ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to tackle climate change. Travel and transport currently makes up ~14 % of global annual emissions, and with aviation being the fastest growing emitter, travel is an important area earmarked for change.

But just how much does travel need to change to meet these climate targets? Do we need vast technological changes or could small changes to travel habits win the day?

At Lancaster University, to help us think about these questions and what it might mean for the sustainability of our workplace, we started an open experiment: 2050 Travel Week. We encouraged our students and staff to compare their travel emissions today to the 2050 targets, and then experiment with trying to live within the target for just one week. You are welcome to give this a go too: you can find our calculator here.

A reality check

Generally, people were shocked by how large our travel carbon emissions were today compared with where they need to be by 2050. On average for our relatively small sample, current total travel emissions were around 7 times larger than the UK’s 2050 target, with some up to 25 times over budget *. But the source of these emissions varied a lot person-to-person – from the daily commute or occasional long-distance car journeys, to many short air hops or a few long-haul flights a year – there’s a lot of ways to blow the budget.

Changing travel behaviours

Reducing these travel emissions can mean hard choices. Occasional long-distance car or air journeys to visit loved ones quickly stack up, as does occasional long-distance work travel. But the alternative – studying or working closer to home or less visits - is hard. It’s difficult to change habits when a sector expects you to travel and be internationally connected. Yes, you can have more meetings remotely, but many people feel that these are a poor substitute for meeting face-to-face. Counterintuitively, web conferencing may allow us to maintain a greater number of international relationships, eventually resulting in more travel for occasional face-to-face meetings.

Day-to-day travel emissions, if you live and work locally, may be easier to change. Of course, there are still barriers to getting on a bicycle or walking more such as time constraints, child care responsibilities, and lack of cycle paths. Would overcoming these barriers make a difference? Eliminating all routine car travel in our survey would have decreased average emissions by 17%. This number includes those with long daily car commutes who would likely find it harder to find alternatives.

Could technology save the day?

What would happen if we didn’t change behaviour, but threw the technological kitchen sink at this? If we had widespread use of electric cars today, it would have taken us down to just over 5.5 times the 2050 target. Alternative aviation fuels can lower emissions by up to 80 %. Applying this reduction in our data would bring us down to 3.5 times the 2050 target. Combine these two and we’re down to being 2 times over the limit. So that means only cutting our travel habits in half – doable right?

Technological fixes need caution: efficiency savings in transport (as with most efficiency savings according to the Jevons paradox), can encourage and enable us to take more journeys or consume more, offsetting any efficiency improvements.

So, what has the experiment told us?

Trying sustainability on for size today gives us a reality check. It lets us know how far or close those targets really are, and highlights where the most important behaviours or future options for improvement may be. It’s hard to think about these things in the abstract, and easy to dismiss problems that lie 30 years ahead by holding out hope for some vague technological saviour.

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet here. Reducing travel in line with our climate commitments would take huge and widespread culture change – perhaps having more of us try out sustainability today can help.

2050 Travel Week - what the participants say

We asked those taking part in the 2050 Travel Week how they found it and what they learnt. Here are some of the responses.

  • "Living on campus means my routine travel is less than 15% of the 2050 budget. Although my UK-based fieldwork research keeps me within budget, my fieldwork-based visit to Brazil last year took me 400% beyond the 2050 target. Is there now a case to be made for the so-called Armchair Scientists?"Dan Evans, PhD student.

  • "All my efforts in reducing routine emissions by cycling and walking to work are totally overshadowed by the huge emissions associated with one return flight to New Zealand. I’m looking into sustainable carbon offset schemes to make myself feel better about my flying emissions, but perhaps the answer is to fly as little as possible. It would be great if the university ensured that work-based travel emissions were offset sustainably." Rachel Marshall, Postdoctoral researcher at LEC.

  • "Amazed and shocked to find my routine car commute uses more carbon than my holiday flights. Public transport is not a viable option for me, so resolve to lift share more and to put aside a day or 2 a week to work from home." Sue Ward, Postgraduate Programmes Manager

  • "During 2050 travel week I was hoping to walk or cycle to work to improve my travel emissions from my baseline. However on the first day of 2050 travel week I was required to travel, by car, to a meeting outside university campus. This hampered the rest of the week and took me above my original baseline. The nature of my work often requires me to attend meetings with external partners but I am now thinking of ways to combat this in future." Laura O’Keefe, Innovation Fellow

  • "I’m lucky enough to be able to walk to work on the vast majority of days, so my daily travel carbon emissions are minimal. I found it’s my leisure activities that are the problem. I love being outdoors, particularly alone, but I might have to start being sociable and car sharing when I venture to the hills!" Ali Birkett, Research Promotion Coordinator


* Based on the people who shared their data with us, which was only 5% of the 500+ people that downloaded the calculator. Anecdotally, we heard that many were too dispirited by the results to then tell us about them


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