Amused celebration was the reaction of a few XR environmental activists with whom I discussed the recent fuel shortage. Yet there are environmental costs of a short term price spike prompting panic buying, hoarding and stockpiling; and stationary cars belching out exhaust in gridlocked cities as they scramble for precious fossil juice. And that’s before we consider fuel poverty.
We need as large a reduction in fuel use and reliance as possible, in as short a time period as possible. But this can be done fastest and most equitably through planned and co-ordinated transformations, not market-signalling shocks.
Petrol and diesel in the UK are predominantly used in internal combustion engines for vehicles.
Immediately, their use can be massively reduced by making long-distance trains and local public transport cheap or free, and emergency “low traffic neighbourhoods”. This would discourage driving, and encourage cycling, walking, and public transport, intrinsically more efficient than car-driving.
In the short term, this can be built upon by taking that national and local public transport (rail and buses) into democratic public ownership; electrifying it; and expanding such good quality, efficient and electric, integrated and affordable transport.
Electrification is key. Coupled with a transformation of energy generation, it allows transport to be powered by low-carbon renewable and nuclear energy.
To promote cycling we must argue for free bikes and bike repair schemes; expansion of bike paths, “bike buses”, and free cycling and maintenance training to help unconfident cyclists; and more extensive provision of racks, storage lockers, and showers. “Walking buses” (like “cycling buses”), for children and young people to walk in convoy to schools are good for the children, the environment, and building good habits. They should be organised by local authorities, paying adults to escort children as necessary. Expanding “low emissions zones” and “congestion charges” will hasten this transition while making walking and cycling even more pleasant.
Over a longer time-span, cities should be structured to decrease travel distances, with better distribution of housing, services, and workplaces, plus increased living density.
To minimise the impact of the residual cars, we need a public programme to retrofit cars with electric (or perhaps hydrogen) engines, or to recycle them; and collectivise greener cars into car-rental schemes.
We call for a moratorium on airport expansion, increased taxation on flights and phasing-out of short-haul flights where there are less-polluting alternatives, with a punitive frequent-flyer tax or flights rationed on the basis of need.
Transporting goods, as well as people, uses vast quantities of fuel. Nationalise freight (road, rail, sea, and air haulage) and to move it towards rail (and where necessary sea), and electrify remaining lorries.
Internationally, long-distance supply chains are encouraged in large part by global inequality in wages, wealth, and working conditions. It is often cheapest or most profitable for corporations to produce goods or food in parts of the world with particularly low wages and bad working conditions, and transport them half the way around the globe to sell in higher wage economies.
We must fight for a vast redistribution of wealth and a levelling up of wages and working-conditions to cut against this trend. This also implies a fight for higher wages here so that food and goods remain affordable even with higher costs in production.
These changes would help the environment, individual and social wellbeing, and resilience against potential “shortages”.
Shortages haven’t just been of liquid fuel. Fossil “natural” gas shortages have impacted heating and electricity prices. We must urgently phase out gas and all fossil fuels from electricity production, have a public programme of insulation, electrified large scale heating systems, and electrification of cooking.
In this sense at least, we should take inspiration from the demands and determination of “Insulate Britain” protesters.