Having recently given up my car after more than 10 years of ownership, I've been mulling over why I already feel so different. Is it because I'm looking forward so spending hundreds of pounds less on transport than I did last year? Or because my carbon footprint is suddenly looking so dainty? Or maybe it's the knowledge I'll no longer have to manoeuvre the vacuum cleaner between the seat and the gear box, in an irritable effort to reach that last piece of mouldy sandwich.
Actually I think it's more complex than that – for while the benefits of going without a car are many, so are the disadvantages. For one thing, I will truly miss the act of driving. Although my little car would never have caught the notice of Top Gear enthusiasts, I enjoyed feeling at one with it as I scanned the road ahead of me, keenly cultivating my animal-like reflexes. My feet hovered over their pedals like eagles poised to attack, as I practiced making ultra-smooth gear changes for the comfort of my passengers. Indeed, I relished the ability to offer a lift to anyone in need, giving something back for all the hitch-hiking I'd done in younger days.
Aside from the visceral pleasure of speed, the car also offered a sense of self-sufficiency – a feeling that no matter what happened, I would be ready. On weekends away, I'd bring running shoes, hiking boots, wellies, "presentable shoes" – and all their related items of clothing. The sense of adventure was palpable as we'd set off – who knew where we'd end up? Swimwear, musical instruments, a bottle of wine, gifts for hosts, a picnic for the journey . . . there was room for everything.
Market days in the nearby town were a highlight of the week, when I'd stock up on anything that caught my eye, with no concern for weight or bulk. Sacks of potatoes, pumpkins, seasonal fruit – and why not bring home a little apple tree? I was the crafty hunter-gatherer, bringing back spoils for the tribe. And the road ran both ways: on my way in to town I could drop off all our empty tins and bottles at the recycling yard, making space for a fresh hoard.
But things have changed, and I've got to accept my new status. I'm no longer the carefree creature who "nips" into town or down to the beach. That bionic woman with an engine and wing mirrors, fearless rescuer of rain-soaked pedestrians, is no more. Suddenly I'm just a girl with a bike – and a growing stack of empty cat food tins that will soon need carrying down to the main road for recycling.
If last year is remembered for its camping weekends and spontaneous visits to outlying friends, this year may be the year of increased intimacy with the bus timetable – not to mention the weather. On dry days it will be pleasant to cycle the three miles to the market, but I'll have to limit my purchases to whatever fits in the bike bags – and then if I need to leave the bike while I run other errands, I'll just have to trust that no one will be tempted to pilfer my unsecured loot.
Yet despite the hassle of having to plan ahead, the loss of freedom to visit farm-dwelling friends, and all the other limits suddenly placed on my lifestyle, I feel a surprising sense of anticipation. Surely it's not just the financial savings, although the money will be a big help. A leaner body is another good reason, and I'm already revelling in the challenge of using my own strength and stamina to get where I need to go.
Yet deeper than this is a growing conviction that we've got to start living on a smaller scale, start enjoying the friends and family who live nearby, and start thinking about how we get around – all of which go hand in hand with decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere.
Most people already know that cars pollute. Many of us have already have made an effort to drive less and to share lifts. But so far there has been no coordination, no big vision for how we might make a transition from a culture where 29% of greenhouse gases come from transport, with 40% of this coming from private cars.
Rolling along in my fossil fuel-guzzler I sometimes felt like a relic from the past: still here but facing imminent extinction. It seems so silly, and even sad, to be sucking down the last bit of easily accessible oil just to fuel shopping trips and Sunday excursions. I can almost hear the disbelief in the voices of future school kids learning about the history of energy: "You mean they used up millions of years' worth of oil in 150 years? Why didn't they save some of it for us?" The epithets passing through their minds would likely be unprintable when they realised that not only had we used up all the juice, but by burning it so quickly we'd left a legacy of floods, droughts and severe storms caused by the instability of a warming planet.
If future generations have good reason to condemn us, will they also concede that we tried to correct our mistakes? I think so, at least if they learn out about "Zero Carbon Britain," the energy scenario developed by one of Europe's longest-standing environmental centres. Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has been looking into the hazards of climate change and peak oil since the mid-1970's, and have been credited with bringing renewable energy technology into the mainstream.
These days CAT maintains a think tank of experts whose sole job is to gather information on the feasibility of avoiding catastrophic climate change. And the good news is that they think it is avoidable. With a programme of "powering down" (reducing demand) combined with "powering up" (making renewable technologies the norm), CAT says we stand a good chance of avoiding the really dangerous climate change – that is, if we can act now to prevent the earth's temperature rising by 2˚C or more.
Much of their vision relies on convincing government to make sustainability more of a priority: insulate homes, modernise land use, harness more of the UK's vast wind resources. But there's definitely room for us as individuals to help, too. Home heating is the largest single culprit of emissions, so it's vital that homes get better insulation and make use of appropriate renewable energies. But the next biggest emitter is transport – of course it's up to the government to improve rail infrastructure and town planning, but we have a role to play too. If we can cut back on air travel and driving, we'll make a big difference. That's something we can do now, while we look forward to cheaper and more efficient electric vehicles.
Of course, there are alternatives to having your own car: car share clubs have become quite common in recent years; members say it's liberating to have access to a car, yet share responsibility for maintenance, insurance and parking costs. My nearest car share group is in the town 3 miles away, so I suppose that system wouldn't be ideal for me. There are, however, neighbours who might consider sharing their car, if it meant I'd be chipping in for costs – it's definitely something to consider.
No doubt there will be times when I'll dream of owning a snazzy electric car (particularly when a downpour finds me on my bike). I'm certainly not promising never to drive again. But I'm eager to do my bit to cut carbon emissions now, and for as long as I can, by doing without a car. Who knows – I might even enjoy it!