Changing practices to decarbonise transport: Journal Club with Dr Matt Watson

This week’s Journal Club was led by Dr Matt Watson from the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield. In this post, his student Katie Sumner reflects on the Grantham Scholars’ discussions around ‘theories of practice’ and how they might help us reduce our carbon footprint.

This week’s paper

‘How theories of practice can inform transition to a decarbonised transport system’ by M. Watson

Katie Sumner

For a lot of us, the car is an essential part of everyday life, and the idea of living without one is completely inconceivable. How could we possibly travel to work, do the weekly shop or get to the gym without a car?

But unfortunately, the stark reality is that cars – at least in their current form – are extremely bad news for the environment, pumping around 64 million tonnes of C02 into our atmosphere every year. And they’re not the only transport culprits.

It’s therefore unsurprising that there has been a lot of recent focus on creating low carbon solutions, with more sustainable fuels and new technologies, such as the human waste powered Bristol ‘Bio-Bus’, constantly popping up. So why is it that in reality, we have made very little progress in cutting transport emissions?

The answer is, of course, people. Previous studies have shown that any approach that treats technology as separate to society will undoubtedly fail, no matter how extraordinary it is. How then, can we get people on board with low carbon transport?

At present, policy initiatives focus very much on the individual: attempting to change behaviour by for example, economic incentives, education or persuasion. But initiatives such as lower road taxes for more environmentally friendly vehicles have been shown to have limited success. Clearly, different approaches are needed. This was the focus of this week’s Journal Club in which Dr Matt Watson introduced a new theoretical concept to the group through his paper ‘How theories of practice can inform transition to a decarbonised transport system’.

Naturally, the first question that springs to mind is, “What on earth are theories of practice?”

Theories of practice suggest that practices make up all aspects of social life. Therefore, what people do is not as simple as individual choice. Instead, any form of human activity, whatever it may be, occurs because you are carrying out a ‘practice’. Every practice is made up of a number of different interacting entities which shape and guide it, including particular ways of understanding, practical knowledge and states of emotion, as well as technologies, infrastructure and more.

To use an example from the paper, both cycling and car driving can be seen as practices. These are made up of a number of different elements including manufacturers, rules of the road, body movements and the different emotions felt when cycling and driving. In the paper, Matt argues that by considering transportation differently – as a practice made up of a large number of different units, rather than a simple choice – we are given a lot more options to intervene and shift towards more sustainable alternatives.

The general consensus was that the paper was very challenging, to say the least. However it brought about some interesting discussions, particularly around how useful it is to look at transport as a practice rather than something you simply choose based on, for example, convenience or other personal motivations.

It is, for instance, brilliant that there are plenty of options for using lower carbon transport in Sheffield, but what if I decide that I don’t want to share a packed tram with a bunch of strangers? Is changing other aspects of the practice of tram riding going to change my decision or will my personal motivations always be too strong? I can see why others were uncertain, but personally, I see a real benefit in using this approach. The more opportunities for intervention the better.