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COP26 ‘Transport Day’ Ignores Everything But EVs

3:18 PM PST on November 12, 2021

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Sir David Attenborough talk to school children at the Science Museum for Launch of the UK hosting of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Image:Number 10, CC

The agenda for "transport day" at the international climate conference in Glasgow was dominated almost entirely by electric cars — and advocates are reminding global leaders that averting environmental disaster is impossible without getting people onto truly sustainable modes.

The United Nations kicked off its COP26 conversations on decarbonizing the global transportation sector on Wednesday with a deeply myopic webpage that encouraged member states to "commit to ensuring all new car and van sales are zero emission vehicles by 2035" and asked everyday people to "build support" for vehicle electrification to the total exclusion of all other carbon-cutting strategies, like transit and active transportation.

That didn't sit well with sustainable transportation advocates, who know all too well that it is mathematically impossible for the world to replace enough gas-powered cars with EVs in time to avert the worst impacts of climate change — and they flocked to Twitter to urge the council to expand its framing.

And of course, they brought the memes.

The UN's troubling web launch wasn't the first time that advocates had pointed out that the critical conference was over-focusing on EVs.

Last week, a coalition of cycling organizations wrote an open letter urging the council to adopt a global goal to increase mode share for biking and other active modes, and to track those key metrics the same way they do other climate indicators.

Of course, biking and other zero-carbon ways of getting around are getting some air time at COP26 — but so far, it's mostly been relegated to the "green zone," where members of the public are invited to make their voices heard, rather than in the "blue zone," where the U.N. hosts its actual negotiations between powerful world leaders.

Even outside the Green Zone, advocates struggled to put active modes on their leaders' radar, or even to navigate the streets of Glasgow, which locals say the conference had clogged with cars.

People-powered modes aren't the only ones getting short shrift — because as experts like Sebastián Castellanos of the NUMO Alliance pointed out, public transportation isn't getting much attention, either.

Those omissions are particularly troubling in the context of an international conference where many communities don't even have the means to rapidly electrify their fleets — an approach which does "not address transport inequality and social injustice within and between countries, especially in the developing world where e-cars may will only be an option for the powerful and wealthy," as University of Oxford professor Christian Brand pointed out.

Others noted that the process of manufacturing an EV itself carries environmental costs — and that even "clean" cars pollute the environment and damage human health in lots of ways beyond the tailpipe.

Fortunately, the benefits of going truly green are well-documented...even if COP26 attendees aren't necessarily getting the stats.

Governments can think outside the four-wheeled vehicle when it comes to non-passenger trips, too — especially when it comes to first- and last-mile solutions.

It's not too late for the leaders behind COP26 to cop to their mistake in leaving active and shared modes off the agenda and expand the dialogue around what green transport looks like.

Because if they don't, all those crestfallen Queen Amidala memes might be proven right.

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