Meeting the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement will require transformational, rather than incremental, changes. Efforts to decarbonise the economy without limiting the growth in energy and materials demand is a race against the clock: as shown by the IPCC, while we reduce emissions per unit via efficiency improvements, emissions increase via growing energy and materials demand. Limiting the growth of energy and materials demand will also help avoid risky reliance on unproven carbon dioxide removal technologies in the medium-term and make it easier to harness the synergies between strong climate action and wider economic, social and environmental benefits in the near-term.

Approaches to reach net-zero targets that focus mostly on improving efficiency via technological solutions limit our ability to radically cut emissions while improving people’s lives. Such approaches try to fix systems that are unsustainable by design, and miss the opportunities that redesigning systems can unleash. There are indeed enormous untapped opportunities to harness if we focus our policy efforts on designing systems that improve people’s well-being with less energy and materials, and hence far lower GHG emissions.

This report builds on the 2019 report, Accelerating Climate Action: Refocusing Policies through a Well-being Lens and explores policy packages focused on systems redesign in the context of the surface transport sector. It identifies three key dynamics at the source of high emissions: induced demand, urban sprawl and the erosion of active and shared transport modes, the combination of which leads to car dependent systems and citizens.

The report calls for policy reprioritisation so that policies and regulations with the potential to reverse such dynamics are at the centre of climate action. These include street redesign, spatial planning aimed at increasing the proximity of people to places of interest, and policies to accelerate the development of networks of sustainable transport modes. Policies such as carbon pricing and incentives for vehicle electrification, core in current climate strategies, remain fundamental and their effectiveness and public acceptability can significantly increase after policy reprioritisation towards systems redesign.

Climate strategies focused on redesigning systems can bring the transformational change needed to meet net-zero goals on time while improving people’s lives. Moving towards these strategies imply a mind-set shift, it implies thinking of ends (e.g. accessibility) rather than means (e.g. mobility), and innovating at the systems level and in the way we do policy-making. Such innovation is essential to transition towards better systems for better lives.

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