Love affair with cars driving us towards disaster
40% increase in vehicle emissions sparks calls for change
Northern Ireland can’t break off its unhealthy love affair with the car. And as a result we’re falling behind the rest of the UK in our attempts to tackle climate change.
That’s the picture that emerges from new figures released yesterday that reveal how well the UK’s regions are doing in meeting their commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
And the verdict for Northern Ireland is that we could do much better, as it emerges that we have only cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 11.2% since 1990 — well behind England which has managed a 21.1% reduction and Scotland whose reductions have reached 21.3%.
The only region lagging behind us is Wales, which has yet to make it into double figures (9.9%) — but they have the excuse of a cohort of highly polluting coal-fired power stations that supply power across the UK.
And the culprit? While emissions from the farming industry, energy suppliers and homes are all dropping, emissions from transport have rocketed by a staggering 40% — undoing all our good work.
It’s not that the other regions don’t have a problem with burgeoning traffic — the ‘Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990-2008’ stats report a general UK rise of 7% in carbon dioxide emissions from road transport. But our road transport emissions have risen by a shameful 39.5% while everywhere else is still in single figures — England up 5.7%, Scotland rising by 8.1% and Wales in a 7.1% climb.
Jim Kitchen, head of the Sustainable Development Commission in Northern Ireland, branded the surge in road transport emissions “unbelievable”.
“We are up almost 40% since 1990 — there are no signs of going in the opposite direction at all,” he said.
“We need to do something about it now. We must come up with plans — we need to get people out of their cars, on to public public transport, we need more people walking, cycling. That is the real problem.”
He also warned that we need to take responsibility for the hidden cost of greenhouse emissions released by industries in other countries manufacturing goods destined for consumption in Northern Ireland.
Friends of the Earth said there are a series of reasons why Northern Ireland remains so wedded to the cult of the private car.
One is the dispersed settlement pattern, with people building single buildings across the countryside and having to rely on cars to go to banks, post offices, friends and use recreational facilities.
City dwellers are faring little better as the poorly designed bus system based on radial routes and incomplete bus lanes is putting people off public transport, FoE campaigner Declan Allison said.
“If I want to get from my home in west Belfast to visit a friend in south Belfast I have to get the bus into the city centre and then another one out again. By the time I get there it takes longer than it would just to walk straight across,” he said.
“Public transport also tends to be expensive and it often doesn’t run at times which suit people to
get to work or to come into town after work, have time to socialise and get back out again.
“We also have this kind of dispersed settlement pattern where the population density is not really adequate to facilitate good public transport. We have a planning system in order to decide how we use land in the public interest but there is a presumption in favour of development in the planning system.
“We end up with whatever people fancy and what we fancy is a rural idyll. It’s really suburban living, but slightly more removed from our neighbours.
“This pattern of development necessitates private car use because people live far from banks, post offices, their friends, recreational facilities and they have to use private cars to get to these places.”
In 2008, when the most recent figures were collected, Northern Ireland’s emissions of the six main greenhouse gases were estimated as 22,186 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Carbon dioxide was the main greenhouse gas, accounting for 72.9% of all greenhouse gas emissions here.
Overall, our greenhouse gas emissions account for 3.5% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions.
Within this, Northern Ireland accounts for 7% of both the UK’s methane and nitrous oxide emissions, linked to the greater significance of agriculture as part of our economy.