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Changing practices to decarbonise transport by Katie Sumner

Grantham Scholars looked at using theories of practise to decarbonise transport in this week’s Journal Club. Here Grantham Scholar Katie Sumner reflects on their discussions.

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

The problem with cars

Katie Sumner
Grantham Scholar Katie Sumner.

Unfortunately the stark reality is that cars 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.

Recently there’s been a focus on creating low carbon solutions, such as sustainable fuels and new technologies. For example, the human waste powered Bristol ‘Bio-Bus’. So why is it that we have made 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?

Policy that focuses on individual change don’t work

At present, policy initiatives focus 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.

What 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, 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. These entities include particular ways of understanding, practical knowledge and states of emotion, as well as technologies, infrastructure and more.

Using theories of practice to decarbonise transport

To use an example from Matt’s 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 more options to intervene and shift towards more sustainable alternatives.

Discussions about the paper

The general consensus was that the paper was challenging. 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.


Journal Club is meet up of Grantham Scholars to discuss publications from a multidisciplinary perspective. It is part of the Grantham Scholar training programme.

Edited by Claire Moran.