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Transport and emissions- how can we make better choices?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Health in a changing climate


When it comes to emissions to the atmosphere, those from transport are considered to be a major contributor to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted.

Although this is probably no great surprise to many people, what can sometimes be forgotten is the scale of the problem that transport presents.

For instance, next time you’re stuck in traffic, and are feeling bored and exasperated, spend a few minutes trying to calculate how many cars are in the traffic jam with their engines running.

Then try to think of the scale of their carbon emissions. The numbers get quite large quite quickly. If fewer of us are using cars there will be less air pollution and hopefully a reduction in that eye-opening number.

A significant number of PHE staff travel on business covering what is essentially the whole of England; this is where our sustainable travel policies come in to play. Each time a member of staff plans a work-related journey, PHE policy requires them to think about what  the most sustainable way to do it is.

Can it be done by public transport? Can it be done by rail instead of road? PHE has a contract with a vehicle supplier meaning that when necessary, staff can use cars that are newer and likely to emit less pollution if they have to drive. Though as previously mentioned, staff should be using public transport wherever possible when travelling for work. Our whole emphasis is to get staff heading towards a more sustainable method of travel and we record how we travel in our annual Sustainability and Carbon Management report

There’s good reason for driving down car use. If we can reduce car use it means fewer emissions to the atmosphere with the associated environmental impacts. As I’m sure many of you will know, particulate air pollution (solid particles or liquid droplets that are suspended in the air) such as that emitted by diesel engines, has a public health effect equivalent to around 29,000 deaths every year.

It has been well documented that if more people were to walk instead of using their cars,  health benefits to them would be greatly increased.

Over the past few years our organisation has been making progress in reducing the amount of business travel we undertake. We have reduced the number of domestic flights our staff take, with hire car use and the number of train trips we take both increasing.

All of this is quite positive, but we don’t want to be complacent and are aware things will happen to challenge our approach. For instance the slight increase in business travel over the past 12 months or so, compared to the year before, is partly down to PHE’s response to the West Africa Ebola outbreak.

The unprecedented scale of our response has involved many members of our staff having to travel a lot more than normal, both domestically and for some internationally, all of which has increased our travel carbon footprint.

Being an open and transparent government organisation PHE is legally required to record and report its travel usage on a regular basis, via a number of reporting mechanisms. This year’s data indicates that our staff travelled in excess of some 27 million kilometres, from all modes of travel, generating just over 3,110 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Although far from ideal, we continually strive to travel as sustainably as we can. I hope that next year I’ll be able to report a drop in those numbers.

Changing the way our members of staff think about business travel is only one aspect – our hope is that they apply that thinking to their own lives.

So instead of using the car to nip to the shop, they’ll walk. Instead of using the car to drive to town, they’ll hop on a bus, train or tram and walk or cycle some of it too. If staff, their families and those we come into contact with think more about how we all travel, it’s possible we may collectively make a real difference.

Image:Robert Pittman

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