The most controversial aspect of the COP26 environmental conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021 was not what was discussed but what clearly, inexplicably and unapologetically was not.

The official transport-related days of the conference made no mention of cycling, walking or public transport until a concerted effort by a coalition of hundreds of such organisations forced a last-minute addendum to the conference’s transport declaration.

Until then, the only transport focus of the assembled world leaders was an unwavering devotion to electric cars!

Before we discuss the politics and money behind this and the ramifications of it, a bit of background is needed. COP is an acronym for Confederation of Parties, a group of 197 nations including Australia that agreed to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change pact in 1992. 2021 was the 26th time this meeting has been held, hence COP26.

In essence it is a climate change conference and last year’s transport-led agenda could have focused on real, practical, simple and effective measure to reduce the sector’s enormous impact on the global environment.

Unfortunately for the environment and the cause of genuine progress, political and business domination changed the discussions to ways to profit financially from change at the expense of pursuing the best changes regardless of business interests.

In response, a campaign backed by 350 organisations worldwide (including Bike SA and several other Australian groups) eventually and tenaciously helped achieve recognition of active travel in the COP26 Transport Declaration. This push, calling on world leaders and governments to recognise the importance of cycling to reach climate goals, came about via a protest at the near-exclusive focus on electric cars and total absence of active mobility in the official Transport Day agenda and the draft transport declaration.

The coalition’s open letter was first published on 2 November and called on governments at COP26 to boost global cycling levels to cut transport emissions quickly and on a massive scale. The conference was also followed by widespread analysis and criticism around the world.

“Instead of COP26’s exclusive focus on zero-emission vehicles and car-charging infrastructure,” wrote European Cycling Federation President Henk Swarttouw, “active mobility should be a cornerstone of global, national and local transport strategies to meet net-zero carbon targets.

“It makes economic sense too: Cycling investments are affordable and come with a return on investment of around 800 per cent. More people riding bikes will help save our planet from catastrophic warming, relieve our public health systems from the onslaught of cardiovascular disease and stimulate our green economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We don’t need to look far afield for new tech to cut CO2 emissions from transport. The benefits that cycling offers today can be leveraged by radically scaling up its use. Humanity cannot afford to wait decades for our fleet of fossil-fuel cars to be fully replaced by electric vehicles, nor can we wait years for new cycling infrastructure to be rolled out. To quickly cut transport CO2 emissions on a massive scale, we need to invest in much more cycling now.”

Cycling, it was pointed out by many, produces zero emissions, delivers far-reaching positive societal impacts and relies on technology that is already widely available today.

Meanwhile, Pacific delegates condemned the “monumental failure” of the “watered-down” meeting that they said that puts Pacific nations in severe existential danger.

Worldwide, the transport sector is responsible for 24 per cent of direct carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion, with the vast majority coming from cars, and these numbers are not decreasing. With global temperatures rising fast, humanity cannot afford to wait decades for fossil-fuel cars and trucks to be fully replaced by electric vehicles – a solution that will not help solve other problems such as traffic congestion and sedentary lifestyles.

Bike SA CEO Christian Haag said the agenda and outcomes of COP26 were a consequence of “the enormous political and financial power of the automotive sector’’.

“That sector,” he said, “has continued to advocate for a position worldwide where the EV market is about personal motor vehicles, road freight and nothing else. Governments are simply following suit and there is no better example of this than COP26 where, of the attendees inside the (inner forum) Green Zone, the automotive sector had more representative than any country. The enormous public transport sector wasn’t even allowed in, let alone bikes – it was just motor vehicles for discussions of EVs and freight.

“Host Great Britain set the agenda and chose not to include those sectors within the Green Zone. It’s telling that the UK government, which has spent billions on sustainable mobility, active mobility, didn’t see fit to incorporate that sector within the COP program. So we’re seeing on one hand positive policy outcomes in the UK backed up by billions spent on active mobility and then you get to COP and suddenly that’s off the agenda. There’s a disconnect there.

“That ricochets all the way down to Australia because we sign up to these declarations and to Adelaide because the South Australian Government is developing a future mobility strategy that doesn’t yet seem to include bikes under the definition of an electric vehicle.

“The Department of Transport needs to be really clear that the worldwide EV market has been for many years pumping out millions of e-bikes.”

Cycling’s huge impact on the Australian and world transport economy is no better demonstrated than by the launch in October by Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg of the Australian Cycling Economy Report which found that cycling’s direct industry impact – including in the booming e-bike category – on the Australian economy is a whopping $6.3 billion. That includes $3.4 billion direct value added to Australia’s GDP while also directly supporting more than 34,000 jobs.

“These numbers paint a very compelling case for further investment in cycling infrastructure that has a real multiplier effect on the overall economy,” Mr Frydenberg said at the time.

“The point the government needs to understand is that cars cannot be assigned complete ownership of the term electric vehicles – it diminishes and disregards a large and growing sector of electric transport, e-bikes, that has the capacity to bring about a huge societal benefit with this new technology,” Haag said.

The COP26 hypocrisy was the blatant poster child of the political and business world’s public embracing of the environment and private dismissal of it if it can’t bring about change while simultaneously maintaining ironclad continuation of current political and economic power structures.

As respected transport journalist Carlton Reid said of the conference: “It was painfully ironic that cyclists had always been portrayed, sneeringly, as tree-hugging environmentalists but at the tree-hugging conference, the save-the-world summit, cycling wasn’t even on the agenda!”

But how does that translate to local action? How do we try to ensure active transport is not similarly given short shrift on the local agenda in South Australia, delaying and diminishing the cleaner, more sustainable move into the future we want for our children?

“The SA Government needs to be quite robust in supporting active transport through e-bikes and e-cargo bikes,” Haag said. “It is rightly world recognised for its current carbon footprint and its rapid movement to a carbon-neutral position but there isn’t a country in the world that is going to achieve carbon reduction targets without dealing with transport.

“Meanwhile, the Adelaide City Council is doing virtually nothing to support active transport even though they have a strong policy framework to encourage it.

“SA seems to be of the view that they don’t need to worry about transport because they are doing so well with all the other areas. Our argument to the state and local governments is that they absolutely need to include transport – with active transport a key participant – to achieve these goals.”

Haag said the cities and regions that are leading the world on environmental improvement via comprehensive active transport agendas – Paris, Berlin, Milan, the European Commission lifting cycling to its highest priority level and Spain making a huge commitment to a national cycling strategy – all have leaders who simply refused to repeat the same old easy, comfortable mistakes.

“Using the mantra ‘we’re not Amsterdam’ to justify inaction on the polluted, congested, car-dominated cities that are choking us is the most potent statement of stupidity for elected members. When they say that, the implication is they have no capacity to come up with anything to make life better for their citizens,” he said.

“The reality is that people in Milan (who recently committed $285 million to radically increase the city’s cycling infrastructure) didn’t think they were Amsterdam either. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris and now Milan are breaking the same barriers that we have here.

“They’ve broken through them with citizens because it’s the people power that makes governments stand up and listen, in the absence of strong evidence based political leadership … something in short supply in SA.

“This all comes back to the state election. Who are we going to elect who understands that perpetuating the status quo is not the way forward to a brighter future?”