Freedom to travel?
Although levels of concern are lower than in previous years, we have seen that around two out of three people continue to worry about the impact of transport on climate change. Does this concern translate into a view that people should travel less?
Since 2003, British Social Attitudes has asked whether people agree or disagree that:
People should be able to travel by plane as much as they like
People should be able to travel by plane as much as they like, even if new terminals or runways are needed to meet the demand
People should be able to travel as much as they like, even if this harms the environment
Reporting the responses to these questions in 2009, Shaw and Butt wondered if declining levels of agreement that people should be free to fly as much they liked was "evidence of the beginnings of a shift towards more consistently environmentally-friendly attitudes towards air travel" (p.138). This year, Table 4.5 shows that 62 per cent of Britons agree, the lowest level - a 17 percentage point decline - since we first asked this question.
When asked, more conditionally, if people should be allowed to travel by air as much as they like even if new terminals or runways are needed, 37 per cent believe they should. This is a rather lower proportion than in the middle of the last decade. Views on this issue, however, are not clear cut: three out of ten (28 per cent) disagree while another three out of ten (28 per cent) neither agree nor disagree. Opponents and proponents of increased airport capacity in Britain will need to persuade this latter group if they want to win public support for their stance.
There has been little change since 2003 in the minority of the population - around one in five - who agree that people should be able to travel by plane as much as they like even if this harms the environment. Approaching half (45 per cent) disagree, with the remainder taking a neutral view. Since we also know that around a quarter of the population do not believe in man-made climate change (as discussed earlier), the scope for a further reduction in agreement on this measure may prove limited.
To understand how these views translate into support for air fare pricing that reflects the environmental impact of flying, British Social Attitudes also invites respondents to agree or disagree with the following statement:
The price of a plane ticket should reflect the environmental damage that flying causes, even if it makes air travel more expensive
Public agreement that the price of a plane ticket should reflect its environmental impact peaked in 2007 at around half of respondents (49 per cent) (Table 4.6). It has declined since then to around four in ten (41 per cent), though this is still higher than when we first asked the question in 2004. Continuing economic uncertainties seem likely to explain this change as well as the growing burden of Air Passenger Duty. Air Passenger Duty, payable by passengers on flights leaving and arriving in the UK, has increased steadily since it was introduced in 1994. In 2011, it ranged from £12 for short-haul flights up to £85 for the longest distances.
Most people use their cars much more than they travel by air. But does that make them more or less reluctant to accept that car use should be curtailed for environmental reasons? We asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed that:
People should be allowed to use their cars as much as they like, even if it causes damage to the environment
For the sake of the environment everyone should reduce how much they use
There is no point in reducing my car use to help the environment unless others
do the same
Table 4.7 shows more than half accepting the principle that everyone should reduce their use of cars for the sake of the environment, while only one in seven disagree. However, when it comes to whether people should be allowed to use their cars as much as they like, regardless of environmental damage, there is almost an even split between those who take a 'green' stance by disagreeing with the proposal, those who agree and those who are neutral. Responses to our third question add a further layer of ambivalence: almost half the public believes there is no point reducing the amount they use their cars unless others do too. Only one in four actively disagree.
While more than half the public accepts the principle that everyone should reduce their car use to help the environment, we see that nearly as many people would be reluctant to cut their car use in practice unless they knew that others were doing the same. This suggests that policy makers need to tread warily if they want to reduce the environmental impact of car use in ways that win public acceptance. We, accordingly, asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed that:
For the sake of the environment, car users should pay higher taxes
People who drive cars that are better for the environment should pay less to use the roads than people whose cars are more harmful to the environment
These two statements represent the 'carrot and stick' of policy instruments. The first implies increases in the cost of Vehicle Excise Duty on all drivers, while the second implies a reduction in Duty for those who drive more environmentally-friendly cars. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our survey finds much greater support for the 'carrot', with around six in ten (58 per cent) agreeing that people driving 'greener' cars should pay less. Just 15 per cent disagree. Conversely, 63 per cent disagree that car users should pay higher taxes, with only 13 per cent taking the opposite view. The responses show non-drivers are more positive towards car tax increases (19 per cent agree) than drivers (10 per cent). But a majority of both groups are opposed.
We have seen that belief in climate change and public concern about the effects of transport on the environment are still both relatively high. In principle (and with caveats) most people support a reduction in the use of cars and air travel "for the sake of the environment". However, when it comes to policy, Britons are more supportive of incentives for environmentally-friendly behaviour through charging less for green choices, and less supportive of measures that will increase the cost of travel for all. With that in mind, we turn to what people say about their own travel behaviour. Does the practice of their travel decisions accord with the views they express in principle? Are those sceptical about climate change less likely to travel in an environmentally-friendly way? If so, might we expect growing scepticism about climate change to result in changes in the ways people choose to travel?
Our survey confirms one unsurprising fact: as a nation we are very reliant on the car. Of those interviewed 69 per cent identify themselves as drivers and - as shown in Figure 4.1 - around half say they travel by car as a driver or passenger "every day or nearly every day". Complementary statistics from the most recent National Travel Survey show that two-thirds (64 per cent) of all journeys undertaken in Britain are made by car (Department for Transport, 2011b). Figure 4.1 also shows how daily use of the car peaked 10 years ago before declining slightly. Since 2006 the proportion seems to have stabilised at around 43 per cent. In an analysis of trends up to 2007, Stradling et al. (2008) hypothesised that the modest adjustment in people's daily travel arrangements might have resulted from rising fuel costs, congestion, the rise of internet communications (reducing the need for travel) or possibly changes in attitudes in response to concern about the environment.
To investigate this last possibility, we now look at how closely travel behaviour is related to views about climate change and, specifically, whether climate change sceptics make greater use of cars than other people. The latest survey responses suggest this is not the case. Comparing people's frequency of car travel with their views about climate change, we find that 45 per cent of non-believers in climate change report using a car every day (or nearly), as do 46 per cent of those who acknowledge climate change but discount the causal role of humans and 50 per cent of those who accept that climate change is at least partly man-made. However, although three-quarters of the population believe in man-made climate change, they are likely to hold a spectrum of views about the seriousness of the problem and the extent to which transport impacts on climate change. If we compare people's car use against our more specific measure of whether they express concern about the effect of transport on climate change, we find that those who are most concerned make travel choices that are somewhat different from others. Table 4.8 shows that the level of car use (either as a driver or a passenger) among those who say they are "very" concerned about the effect of car use on climate change is noticeably lower (39 per cent) than for those who report being "fairly", "not very" or "not at all" concerned. This is particularly true of frequent car use.
Of course, people's daily travel choices are affected and constrained by a range of factors other than concern about environmental impact, not least the availability of suitable public transport options. This seems likely to explain why the association between concern about climate change and travel behaviour is relatively weak.
We also looked at air travel. Given the distances involved and a lack of practicable alternatives where most international travel is concerned, people's decisions about whether to fly will often be about whether to make their trip at all. There has been much publicity about the impact of air travel on the environment and the high 'carbon footprint' associated with flying. It is also worth noting that the use people in Britain make of air travel has stagnated in recent years. Since 2003, British Social Attitudes has asked people about the number of air trips they have undertaken by plane in the preceding 12 months. The replies show that 48 per cent of participants in the latest survey have flown in the past year, compared with 56 per cent in 2008. Figures from the Department for Transport also show a decline in air passenger numbers from the UK since 2007, associated with the economic recession. Despite this, air travel is predicted to grow significantly in the future (Department for Transport, 2011c) and the environmental impact of flying is likely to become an even more important issue.
As with car use, we can also investigate whether the amount people fly is linked to their views about climate change. Again, there turns out to be little difference in the frequency of flying between those who do not accept that climate change is occurring and those who do (Table 4.9). While 45 per cent of people who do not believe in climate change report flying in the past year, the same is true of 46 per cent of those who doubt that climate change is man-made and 49 per cent of those who believe it is at least partly caused by humans. Even when looking at our more specific measure of concern about transport and the environment, there turns out to be little difference in frequency of air travel between those who say they are "very" concerned and those who are less so. Indeed, those least concerned about transport and the environment are likely to have flown rather less than others, 63 per cent not having flown in the preceding year compared with around half of others.3
While there appears to be some relationship, though weak, between car use and concern about climate change, the amount that people travel by air does not appear related to their views or concerns about climate change. What then are the implications for future efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases? Does the difference between public attitudes in principle and people's travel choices in practice mean initiatives to change travel behaviour are doomed to fail? That is the issue we examine in the final part of this chapter.
- Download chapter
- Speech by David Cameron at Department of Energy and Climate Change, www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/news/pn10_059/pn10_059.aspx
- This question does not ask specifically about car use, but is placed with other questions about road transport.
- It has previously been noted that those most concerned about the environment can often themselves be the most frequent flyers (Commission for Integrated Transport, 2007).
- Transport policy in Scotland is devolved so this would only apply in England and Wales.
- The multivariate analysis technique used was logistic regression - more details of the methods used can be found in the Technical details chapter of this report. Further details of the analysis results are available from the authors on request.
- Related links