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Climate gap report: transport

The next ten years will be crucial in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown. Yet, according to new research by Ethical Consumer, we are not cutting emissions fast enough across any of our key lifestyle areas - including our transport. So what changes do we need to make when it comes to travel and how far are we from getting there?

Rob Harrison and Josie Wexler discuss the findings from Closing the Climate Gap - A Report on Progress Towards Sustainable Consumer Lifestyles in the UK, a new report by Ethical Consumer.

Travel accounts for around 25% of our total consumer emissions. Yet, in 2021, the Climate Gap report found that emissions from travel are not being cut fast enough.

If we are to reverse this trend, the report highlights three key actions that all consumers must take.

  1. Choose electric vehicles
  2. Reduce air travel where possible
  3. Reduce road travel where possible

In this page, we explore these actions: why they are necessary, how far we are from them, and the changes that businesses and governments can make to ensure we achieve these goals. We call on consumers to not only reduce their own emissions in the areas we have identified, but to also consider getting engaged with political campaigns trying to persuade the government and companies to take some of the actions identified too.

What is the Climate Gap report?

Ethical Consumer's first Climate Gap report was published in October 2021, to track progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK. The report helps identify how consumers, governments and companies can work together to help fix the climate crisis.

Called 'Closing the Climate Gap', the report's aim is to track the gap between our current combined consumption emissions and where they need to be by 2030. A second key aim of the project is to produce a simplified list of key actions for consumers, companies and governments.

The report has four sections on the areas where our lifestyle climate impacts are the biggest: food, housing, transport and consumer goods, covering 75% of combined total consumer emissions. It compares where consumer behaviour is in these areas against 2030 targets from reports issued by the UK Government's own Climate Change Committee (CCC). Read more about the Climate Change Committee's targets on our campaign page.

Transport and climate change

The table below summarises what we think are the three most important opportunities for decarbonisation in the transport impact area: driving less, flying less and choosing fully electric vehicles.

It also shows with the three orange squares that these changes didn't occur fast enough in the last year to meet our goals. We took the decision not to include pandemic-induced aviation reductions in these figures, as they are likely to give a false impression of longer-term trends.

Transport, including goods transport, accounts for about a quarter of our emissions. Of this, the breakdown is about:

  • 40% is cars,
  • 24% flights,
  • 12% vans,
  • 11% HGVs,
  • 9% shipping
  • 4% trains and buses.

Decarbonising transport involves a mixture of reducing travel, switching modes (e.g. from planes to trains), improving vehicle efficiency, and switching fuel. Most vehicles can be electrified, but for those that are too heavy or go too far or too fast, there is hydrogen, biomass or synthetic fuels.

The CCC's Balanced Scenario (used throughout our report) includes:

  • Battery-electric vehicles replace all sales of conventional cars, vans, motorbikes and plug-in hybrids by 2032.
  • Some efficiency gains – e.g. the fuel efficiency of aviation improves at 1.4% per annum, compared to 0.7% in the baseline.

Behaviour change is modest. In the CCC's figures there is no absolute reduction in car or aviation travel, although growth is slower than that anticipated by the Department for Transport. In none of its scenarios is there a huge reduction.

The CCC’s justification for not modelling a larger reduction in aviation is partly that the UK Climate Assembly, a citizens group chosen to be representative of the population, was reluctant to reduce aviation significantly.

While surface transport and shipping emissions fall towards zero by 2050, the CCC’s scenarios leave significant ongoing carbon emissions from aviation. There is a 40% reduction on 2018 levels in the Balanced Scenario. The rest has to be cancelled with land-based net negative technologies.

Actions required by consumers

  • Replace your car with an electric as soon as it makes practical sense to do so.
  • Any travel reduction you can do will help.

Actions required by government

The CCC advises:

  • Sales of new fossil fuel cars, vans and motorbikes should be banned by 2032.
  • There needs to be a rapid rollout of charging infrastructure.
  • The electricity network and smart charging systems must be upgraded to deal with the electric load.

Actions required by businesses

The CCC advises:

  • Continued work on improving efficiency.
  • It is too early to tell which zero-carbon HGV technologies will emerge as marketleaders – manufacturers must continue developing electric and hydrogen fuel cell HGVs.

Transport Report Card 2021

The report card below summarises our key findings on transport, and covering around 25% of our total emissions. It looks at how much we must cut our emissions by by 2030 to meet UK targets on transport, and whether we are moving fast enough towards these goals. It then highlights the key actions we must - as consumers, governments and businesses - take.

  Annual emissions from cars Annual emissions from aviation

Electric car registrations

Consumer-related actions needed by 2030 (from a 2019 baseline)* c. 40% reduction c. 13% reduction 97% by 2030
Where are we in the most recent figures?

74.7 million tonnes CO2e (2019)

38 million tonnes CO2e (2019) 6.5% (2020)
The current climate gap. What is still needed? 40% (30 million tonnes) 13% (4.94 million tonnes) 93.5%
What were the figures from the previous year? 75.1 million tonnes 38 million tonnes 3.15%
Are we moving fast enough? Not moving fast enough Not moving fast enough Not moving fast enough
What does government need to do? Decarbonise electricity supply. Sense check road building. Support
walking, cycling and public transport.
Halt airport expansion. Frequentflier levy. Encourage efficiency gains. Aviation tax reform. EV purchase subsidies. Support rapid rollout of charging infrastructure. Mandatory zeroemission sales targets.
What do companies need to do? Sell more electric vehicles. Continue innovating on decarbonising HGVs. Reduce distance travelled. Replace business travel with online working. Increase plane efficiency. Develop sustainable aviation fuel. Switch to electric cars and vans. Invest in charging infrastructure.
What do consumers need to do?

Electrify. Reduce distance travelled. Switch to lower carbon travel where possible.

Reduce flying if possible.

Replace cars with a fully electric vehicle as soon as possible.

Where are consumer intentions? 35% willing to reduce car travel. 30% will fly less after pandemic in a climate survey.

24% plan to buy an EV or a (much less good) hybrid PEHV in next five years.

* in the CCC’s ‘Balanced Scenario’

c. = circa or approximately; CCC = Climate Change Committee

Find out more about the report

A summary of the longer report and the other impacts areas is available on our campaign page.

Download the full 40 page report as a PDF. The PDf version includes the evidence that sits behind all this information.

We will be updating the report annually, to provide science-based targets for consumers each year.