The impact of COP26: the role of driving behaviour in fighting climate change

The UK government hosted the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in the autumn of 2021 and from it came a declaration for business fleet owners and operators: “We will work towards 100% of our car and van fleets being zero [tailpipe] emission vehicles by 2030, or earlier where markets allow.”

Twenty-seven major fleets, including ABB, E.ON, GlaxoSmithKline, IKEA, Siemens, Vattenfall and Zurich signed the declaration.

Fleets are being targeted because transport is responsible for around a quarter of the CO2 emissions that cause global warming. The transport sector as a whole is nine-tenths dependent on fossil fuels. And, within some organisations, fleet is the biggest contributor to their carbon footprint.

At technology firm ABB, the company is on track to electrify its 10,000-strong global vehicle fleet by 2030. It began the process in 2014 with the introduction of electric vehicles (“EVs”) in the Netherlands. EVs now carry out 45% of the company’s deliveries and the installation of charging networks is now the main factor holding up further progress. 

Software firm SAP is on a similar path and plans to ensure that all new vehicles will be free of tailpipe emissions by 2025. The organisation also incentivises employees to switch to EVs for their own cars and, in some countries, SAP employees receive financial support to charge their cars at home.

The importance of driving behaviours – even in Electric Vehicles

However, not all firms are as far progressed with EVs and, as the University of Southampton has pointed out, while “technological advances are critical to mitigate climate change; we must also change our behaviour. The way in which a car is driven has a significant effect on the amount of fuel that is used.”

And given that the electricity used to charge EVs across the world is still largely generated by burning fossil fuels, and more electricity is required to drive aggressively and at faster speeds, this statement applies to EV driving as well as conventional internal combustion engine vehicles.

The RAC adds: “Making small changes to your driving style can have a significant impact on the level of emissions. Changing gear earlier, not exploring the upper reaches of the rev range, braking sooner and slowing down will reduce wear and tear, while maintaining efficiency.”

Moreover, the impact of driving on the environment extends beyond greenhouse gases to overall air quality. As clean-air expert Tim Smedley tells Brightmile: “When Kings College modelled what an all-electric fleet in London would look like, particle pollution only dropped by half. They may not have exhaust pipes, but resuspended solids, brake and tyre wear are still churned up into the air, especially as EVs tend to be heavier than traditional cars. Slower and smoother is better for all vehicles and the environment.”

The message from the Department for Transport (DfT) is that driving more efficiently means: lower costs, improved profit margins, reduced emissions and improved environmental performance. 

Safer driving, meanwhile, leads to fewer injuries and fatalities on our roads, less accident damage to vehicles, reduced unproductive downtime for vehicle repair and reduced insurance premiums.

So, how can we encourage these behaviours across our fleets?

Three simple changes

1. Reduce speed 

As we all know, speeding puts the driver’s life and the lives of other road users at risk. The DfT adds that speeding will have “negative effects on fuel economy due to increased aerodynamic drag. Use of constant speeds on motorways and dual carriageways will result in a safer, more consistent and more economical drive. Wear and tear on the engine and running gear will be reduced and the vehicle will be able to run at its most economical rate.” The European Environment Agency agrees, saying that fuel savings can be achieved and that “cutting speed can significantly reduce emissions of pollutants”.

2. Brake and accelerate smoothly

The DfT says that in most cases, when the footbrake is used the road speed that has been lost has to be made up by using the accelerator, thereby burning fuel. “By braking smoothly and progressively the amount of road speed that is lost can be minimised (and can help avoid having to stop completely). Harsh acceleration and braking uses more fuel and requires an increase in the number of gear changes that the vehicle subsequently has to make.”

3. Avoid excessive gear changes

Every time you drop down a gear in a car, fuel consumption increases due to the effect of the gearing ratios. The DfT says: “Forward planning helps to reduce excessive gear changes. This is especially important when approaching junctions and roundabouts. Moving a vehicle from standstill will require considerably more fuel than keeping a vehicle moving, even at walking pace. Good forward planning improves your safety and that of other road users.”

The key message for fleets

While the push for electrification is progressing it’s vital to remember the impact of driver behaviour. Studies suggest that fuel consumption can be reduced by 15-20% by improving driving habits alone – reducing the need for fossil fuels, reducing emissions, saving money and making the roads safer for all users. 

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