This Train Will Terminate at the Next Stop

Rethink Thinks, Edward Lamb

I’m on a train from Liverpool to Newcastle. My face covering is making me feel a bit nauseous. I can’t breathe quite as well as I’d like. Does anyone else get that? (Edit: I pushed through and I’m fine again now)

It’s the 1st May 2021 and Spring is here in the UK. People are emerging not just from the chill of winter but also from the restrictions that pandemic has held us under. For many around the world the fires of the pandemic continue to rage but for us life seems to be returning to normal. That sense of normality is hugely reassuring. Comforting. But of course, for those of us with even the slightest grasp of the maths and physics that climate change the idea of the modern world bursting back into life brings a certain sense of anxiety.

Last night I helped host, along with friends from Wirral Climate Action Group, an event where we brought together an eclectic mix of local elected leaders and experts to discuss our progress and path towards transport decarbonisation. An eager crowd of 60 or 70 attendees listened, watched and chatted as we spoke. You can watch it yourself right here, including the slightly shaky intro I gave.

The fantastic range of speakers who gave up their time deserve to be heard and offered a range of solutions and insights into hurdles we face in the race to decarbonise transport.

These discussions offer a fascinating glimpse into the state of play in 2021. For climate obsessives like me it offers proof that we are nowhere near understanding the scale of work needed in the coming years.

The chat revolved around bikes and buses, trains and charging points for EVs. Electric planes might save us, apparently. Who knows? Thankfully there was no talk of compulsory helmet and/or bell use for cyclists, something that would have seen me jump through the nearest 2nd floor window.

Of course, ‘saving us’ is the wrong kind of language. On a long enough time line, nothing can. What we’re trying to do is stabilise things so that kind, well mannered human beings that we all know and love can experience a decent 80 or 90 years on Planet Earth without worrying too much about where their next meal will come from and how readily available fresh, running water is for drinking, cleaning, hose pipe fun, etc.

Perhaps this should be the starting point for all climate action. What defines a decent, wholesome existence? I should probably know – I spend an hour every week speaking with a psychotherapist. Sean tells me over and over that true success is waking up and going to sleep with a smile on your face, knowing that the day you’re about to complete is full of meaning and experiences worth retelling. Things worthy of appearing on your Timehop each day. Who are we to lecture people on what that is, though?

Now, transport decarbonisation is my specialist subject and I think more about this than most. So what can transport bring us in term of memory and experience? Well, an awful lot of course. I’m on a train moving through ever changing scenery at a pleasant 70–100mph. Slowing down as we move through the urban environment and speeding up as we pass through the Pennines and agricultural land.

My wife travelled up earlier than me by car. Largely the same route but the experience by car is very different in the sunken, sterile motorways and A roads of the UK. The emphasis of both is on speed. The carbon footprint of both is very different but maths and physics don’t always register when we make decisions of how we move from place to place.

Once we’re all up in Northumberland we’ll be able to spend most of our long weekend on foot making memories. The beach and the nearby village are all within a 10 minute walk. When we come back in the summer for a longer break we can reach much further by bike, with the odd car trip to more distant villages and beaches. We recently purchased an e-bike which should help us cut down on car use even more (assuming I figure out how to get it up there – it’s too heavy to put on a rack. I’m working on it).

Anyway, back to the event. Wirral, where I live and spend most of my time, has no airport so thankfully we didn’t need to argue too much about flights, although there was some chat about banning short haul flights where rail exists. MPs seemed supportive but stopped well short of complete support, saying ‘People need choices!’ and ‘Routes might not be available to London!’, etc.

These short responses are the most telling and offer a glimpse into the basic lack of understanding as to the maths of the climate emergency.

Here’s a quick exercise that you might find helpful:

  1. Look at a chart of how our emissions need to drop between now and 2050 (see page 9 of my local strategy – if you’re in the UK yours will be quite similar)
  2. Shade in the part underneath the line
  3. In this shaded section, write in everything that you want to build that can feed, house and keep warm/cool every single human on earth from now until the end of time

How did you get on? What did you start with? HS2? Electric cars? New homes for the regeneration of Birkenhead or the nearest town/city to you? Heat pumps or wind turbines?

It’s an important exercise. The biggest mistake I see when leaders talk about the work ahead is a lack of understanding of this basic mathematical conundrum. If everything we do has a carbon footprint, then what can we build between now and 2030 that will keep us within budget? Sure, we can draw outside the line for a while but that just means a steeper drop 10 years from now. If you’re really smart, maybe you noted down carbon capture technology, something that, if it existed at scale might buy us more time and budget. Clever, but risky.

Anyway, watch the discussion if you can. There will be other, similar events online more local to you but they will be largely the same. There is an understandable desperation for life to return to normal but I’m increasingly of the opinion that events will soon overtake us and Mother Nature will force our hand, revealing how limited our options really are. We’ve had a glimpse of that over the past 12 months.

Futurist Alex Steffen writes about this stuff far more eloquently than me, albeit with a US perspective. Politically we are in a fascinating time for the environmental movement. We are at the limit of what our political machine is capable of in terms of climate debate, as it grapples with the reality of what options will be available to us in the very near future.

“When we do get around to having sober conversations about the magnitude of the changes tearing through the world around us, most of the ideas we discuss are decades past their sell-by date, and treat the crisis as a distant problem. Acting on behalf of our grandchildren. Gradual policy changes. Slowly rising carbon taxes. Eventual improvements in technology. Living “a little more sustainably.” Planting trees. Planning to build some sea walls.”
Alex Steffen, The Last Hurrah

For me, all roads lead to the bicycle (plus some walking and buses/trains if we’re lucky). For you? Well, do the maths and see what fits. Don’t forget to show your working out.

I’ve just heard that my next train heading north beyond Newcastle is delayed.

My noise cancelling headphones did their keep this news from reaching me but, alas, reality is about to catchup with me when I set foot on the platform. This is an important lesson as we all head forward. I’d recommend taking your headphones off and waking up to the mathematical reality of our environmental commitments as soon as you can. A replacement bus service isn’t too bad, after all.

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