Public transport can reduce emissions and inequality

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While public transport was largely absent from the official conference programme of COP26, on the civil society fringe, trade unions, city mayors and allies were powering ahead. James Bartholomeusz reports on a rare glimpse of progress at the Conference.

In the aftermath of the Glasgow climate summit, headlines around the world are doom-laden with the failure of national negotiators to reach a deal to limit emissions. While in many areas the outlook seems bleak, there is at least one where we can mark COP26 as a serious step forward. The emerging consensus on public transport is something for which we can be thankful.

Taken together, transport accounts for around a quarter of all global CO2 emissions. Decarbonising the transport sectors is therefore a top priority in limiting temperature rises to 1.5°C, but this simple prescription can be misleading. Merely electrifying our existing transport system will not go far enough, and not only because there is no clear way of meeting the massively increased demand for electricity from renewable sources. All around the world, the transport status quo embeds severe inequalities – between women and men, ethnic minorities and majorities, working- and middle-class people. Capping our ambition at electric vehicles will just transpose today’s injustices into the age of net-zero.

That is why the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), along with our affiliated unions and global partners like C40 Cities, is putting forward an alternative vision. We are calling for a dramatic increase in public investment in public transport systems worldwide, ultimately to establish high-quality, efficient and integrated public transport in every city. Expanding public transport will take us a long way towards both reducing overall transport emissions and closing the gulf of inequality between city residents.

New research produced by ITF and C40 in the lead-up to COP demonstrates that public transport investment can also be a substantial job-creator. Investment in just five major cities could create 1.3 million jobs directly and indirectly, both within cities and along supply chains. We want every one of those to be a good, formal, unionised job, providing opportunities for young and women workers and spreading wealth more evenly across our societies.

In the official COP proceedings, Transport Day was overshadowed by the publication of meagre draft decisions from the entire conference. Outside the secure zone, however, others were making their voices heard. Local campaigners demonstrated for free public transport.

Local campaigners demonstrated for free public transport outside COP26 in Glasgow (Pic: Michal Rozworski)

ITF and C40 coordinated the launch of a global coalition statement on public transport, in which mayors of 15 major cities – including Istanbul, Lagos, London, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco – committed to supporting an expansion in public transport as a means to tackle the climate crisis. And at a virtual event hosted in the office of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, around 300 participants joined to hear workers, passengers, union leaders, mayors and campaigners discuss the changes required to make our public transport fit for the future.

This is clearly only the start – it will take much more than words on a piece of paper to effect the change we need. Nevertheless, an unprecedented coalition has come together to back practical steps to tackle environmental and social challenges together. Regardless the official decisions of COP26, that coalition of unions and mayors can now get to work in making public transport a social justice solution to climate breakdown.

Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town are already part of C40. We hope that South African unions will join us!

As Eric Phumlani, a SATAWU official says: “What most of the workers and the commuters in [South Africa] want is public transport that is reliable, that is sustainable, that is affordable, [and which provides] better and more jobs for the employees.”

James Bartholomeusz is Urban Transport Coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation


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James Bartholomeusz
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