Q&A with Professor David Banister

New Statesman

 

With the number of cars on the road expected to triple by 2050, and with an increased population, what do we need to do now to ensure the continued movement of people and goods?

I think the problem we are now facing is that the whole global economy and the movement of people are at unprecedented levels. And all things being equal, the more travel there is, the greater the use of energy.

 

Do you think there’s enough joined-up thinking between government, industry and consumer? If not, how can we encourage this?

I don’t think there is. What we find is that the people are aware of the problems, business is aware of the problems and the government is aware of the problems, yet it seems, for various reasons, that it’s very difficult to make any real impact on this.

 

How can academics work with business and government to create innovative  solutions around infrastructure, producing more efficient cities?

There has been a debate over a lengthy period of time between governments, business, industry and the universities and things are changing now. Previously, research would be carried out at the universities and then the results would be presented to the government, and that would be the extent of engagement. But now engagement is much more embedded within the research, so when we’re doing research we talk to people from business and government. They would be involved all the way through with the framing of the research, and at the end we would make sure that they fully understood and had access to what we’re actually doing.

 

Do you think there’s enough investment going into the production of smarter cars?

I think where money could be better spent is on trying to understand why people take up new ideas, whether it’s smart meters, smart vehicles or any other kind of smart technology.

 

Do you think our infrastructure can handle a total switch to electric cars?

My guess is that a total switch would be quite problematic. There are also technical problems that still need to be resolved.

 

Ought we to address rail infrastructure, or focus on changing our roads?

The railways are important, particularly in certain locations. The road system couldn’t really cater for the volume of traffic that rail brings.

So we do need rail investment; we need to upgrade, we need a modern system. But we need to look at roads as well, because they are part of the overall transport system.

 

How do we make transport low-carbon for those living outside major cities?

I think there is a case for a whole range of different types of transport, like the electric hybrid buses, which use battery technology. The main thing with all forms of transport, whether it’s in urban or rural areas, is to make sure you have lots of people in them. Where you have a full bus or a full car, both are quite efficient.

 

With three-quarters of the world’s population expected to be living in cities by 2050, is there a danger of having a mobile urban population and an isolated rural population?

I don’t think so. I think what will happen is travel will become much more amorphous. It will be difficult to say “this is rural” and “this is urban”.

 

Where do you see a role for biofuels?

Certainly first-generation biofuels, which are produced using crops, are problematic, partly because they are not that good in the sense that they don’t have a very high energy density, so you need more of them to replace normal fuel. Second, there is the debate about food v energy crops. But from the second generation, with biomass fuels, there is probably greater potential.

 

Do you think we should be more worried about not having enough, or about not having the right kind of energy in future?

There do seem to be huge amounts of energy resources available, especially more recently with the use of fracking methods to get gas out of shale and to get oil out of what was deemed before to be not suitable.

There’s likely to be oil in the Arctic and possibly the Antarctic under deep water. So the resource is there.

 

Where do you think the main responsibility for energy conservation lies – with consumers, the government or business?

Responsibility, I think, strongly lies at all levels, not one. Again, I think that’s something that works from top down through the government but also through communities, through non-governmental organisations, through environmental groups. We’re not very far off that ladder at the moment.

 

What myths about energy do you find yourself addressing most frequently?

The classic one in transport was “I use unleaded petrol: I’m green” – which is far from true,because you’re still producing carbon dioxide. But I still think generally people are reasonably well informed about the problems. The myth,I suppose, is that they feel that they can’t do anything themselves.

 

Are we all doomed?

The optimist in me says “no” but the realist might even say “yes, possibly we are”. I think the problem is that we are getting these warning signs which are saying, “We must do something”, and the tendency is that we do something in the short term but then it’s back to business as usual.