Environmental activist Malcolm Shepherd is pressing ministers hard on carbon reduction and believes that the voluntary sector can play a key role in meeting targets.

Turning environmental charities into well-oiled machines is something of a habit for Malcolm Shepherd, newly promoted to chief executive at sustainable transport charity Sustrans. With a background in financial management and a passion for green causes, he is the ideal candidate for setting not-for-profit organisations on track for success. Shepherd joined Sustrans in 1995 as operations director.

His first major achievement was handling the financial side of the bid for National Lottery funding, which secured a £43.5 million grant to develop the National Cycle Network. The charity has grown significantly since then, boosted by three Big Lottery Fund awards and projects such as Bike It and TravelSmart that have enticed thousands of people out of their cars. Succeeding John Grimshaw, who continues as president, he notes similarities between his role at Sustrans and his time as a consultant at a relatively small Friends of the Earth. He took on a voluntary role with the group at a time when it was "in disarray in terms of management".

He reflects: "My brief covered management information systems but I told them that they had much bigger problems than they thought in a number of departments. It's not uncommon for charities of a certain size." His first experience of the voluntary sector was working with Nuclear Weapons Freeze, which he says he "lifted up by its bootstraps". He adds: "I am pleased that I have been able to transfer the skills that I gained in industry. I was able to do so in a way that made a significant difference to organisations that might not be around today if I had not got involved at crucial times."

But it isn't just the business side of charity work that drives Shepherd. He is committed to changing people's attitudes to transport, which he claims is a key approach in a sector responsible for between a quarter and a third of the UK's carbon emissions. "It's the one sector in which emissions continue to increase. This has to be the biggest transport problem that we face in the next five years," he insists. But new technology is not the answer, he argues.

"It is vital that we continue to experiment with new ideas such as hydrogen power, but the benefits are still unclear. You still have to burn some energy to get the hydrogen. The solution lies in consuming less by travelling shorter distances and at lower speeds." He acknowledges, however, that changing people's behaviour is very difficult to achieve. While he maintains that transport secretary Ruth Kelly does listen to organisations such as Sustrans and is "starting to take stock of the situation", he finds the DfT's approach incompatible with reducing carbon emissions. "The fact that the department still considers itself to be an economic department and part of the delivery process for economic growth is disturbing," he says.

The department's Towards a Sustainable Transport Strategy document is a step in the right direction because it acknowledges that transport has a major role to play in tackling climate change, he suggests. But evidence of its application is yet to be seen, he complains. "Carbon has to be the bottom line. But the DfT is nowhere near building that into the decision-making process. It provides no funding for the work we do."

It comes as no surprise to discover that Shepherd has a few suggestions for Kelly. "We at Sustrans need to form a strategic partnership with the DfT to roll out the type of projects that we already do nationwide. We have a range of effective, tried and tested solutions. We know the specific outcomes of different measures and we know how much funding is required," he says. His key recommendation is that Kelly should set a target for 75 per cent of all journeys in the UK to be made by a sustainable mode of transport. But this should not be the responsibility of the DfT alone, he adds. "She should insist that other government departments have a role to play in reducing the carbon impact of transport. This can be done through planning, housing and health promotion," he suggests. Closer to home, Shepherd is keen to ensure that his approach remains fresh and he is in the process of gathering the thoughts of Sustrans staff and volunteers so the views of everyone are heard. "Being in the same organisation for a while has its benefits but it can also hinder you," he explains. "So I'm trying to stand back and ask people what we're doing right or wrong and to contribute their ideas. I will then take the information on board, decide what our objectives are and begin to make changes if necessary."