Rising to the Challenge

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 31st March 2021 by Claire Haigh.

The climate crisis is already hitting worst case scenario levels that if left unchecked will lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems. Our thinking needs to change if we are to rise to the scale of the challenge.

Transport is the fastest growing source of global greenhouse gas emissions and the UK’s biggest polluting sector. Too little progress has been made. Emissions in the UK are 4% higher than in 2013, and only 3% lower than in 1990. Road vehicles are responsible for 90% of transport emissions.

If we’re serious about achieving net zero, every aspect of how we plan for transport will need to change. This will require new thinking, creative solutions and systemic change.

In partnership with Transport Times and the Transport Knowledge Hub, Greener Transport Solutions has been bringing together thought leadership on how to decarbonise the sector. The findings are summarised in a new report published today. Five key themes have emerged:

Transport and the wider economy

The decarbonisation of transport cannot occur without changes to the wider economy. We need a whole-systems approach that reflects the shift to digital connectivity, and the integration of transport with land-use planning, energy and green finance. How do we break down the silos of Government to ensure that we can plan for jobs, housing, freight and all key drivers of the economy on an integrated long-term basis?

The investment needed to decarbonise transport will go vastly beyond what will be achievable from the taxpayer or individual user. Other mechanisms such as land value capture will be needed. A key challenge will be how to harness private investment. Greening finance and the financing of green investments will be key. Covid recovery stimulus packages will also play a critical role in decarbonisation.

The role of behaviour change

Technical solutions alone will be insufficient, we also need behaviour change. The easy wins have already happened, in terms of decarbonisation of the power sector. Two thirds of future emissions reductions will rely on individual choices and behaviours. The scale of the challenge is immense. Less than 0.5% of the UK’s 32.9 million car fleet is fully electric.

The 2030 ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans is welcome but it is estimated that we will still need to reduce traffic on our roads by between 20% and 60% by 2030. The Scottish Government has pledged a 20% cut in car kms by 2030. The Transport Decarbonisation Plan will need to include a similar 2030 commitment, along with a clear plan for how it can be delivered.

Getting the price signals right

We need a total reformulation of transport pricing. Fares and taxes should encourage people to make lower carbon choices. The result of repeated failures of road taxation to cover externalities is that we over consume roads. Potentially halving Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights, combined with rail fare increases and the continued freeze in fuel duty all give the wrong signals to consumers.

The switch to electric vehicles (EVs) means that road traffic will increase, and the Treasury faces a £40bn black hole. It would be highly inequitable if nothing replaces fuel duty and other road taxes, and road infrastructure were to be financed from general taxation. This would mean non car owners, a high percentage of them on low income, cross subsidising motorists. The switch provides the opportunity for an honest conversation with the public about road pricing.

Ensuring a fair and just transition

We need to ensure that access to essential services, whether by transport or digital means, is available for all. Significantly more government support will be needed to ensure that low income households are not excluded from transport and are able to buy EVs and access charging infrastructure. Improving public transport and the affordability of bus fares must be a key priority. Nearly half of workless households have no access to a car.

Government could face a major public backlash if it does not introduce more targeted support for lower-income citizens. The recent cut in grants for EVs appears to be a step in the wrong direction. Some question how long the state should subsidise vehicle purchase given that EV grants benefit predominantly better off households able to afford a new car. However, somehow a second-hand market needs to be developed.

Strengthening devolution

More devolution deals would drive faster delivery of UK wide net zero targets. Local areas need to be able plan for housing, jobs and transport on an integrated long-term basis. The National Infrastructure Commission recommends continuous five-year local transport budgets for the Mayoral Combined Authorities and is highly critical of the short-term, competitive and fragmented nature of much local funding.

Long term support and flexibility should be extended to all local areas. 9 out of 10 councils have declared a climate emergency but the LGA reports substantial barriers to tackling climate change including funding (96%), regulatory barriers (93%), lack of workforce capacity (88%), and lack of skills (78%). A wholesale reform of appraisal is also needed. We need to move beyond narrow frameworks of cost-benefit analysis.

 

It is now expected that the Transport Decarbonisation Plan will be published in May. A year ago, in its ‘Setting the Challenge’ paper, the Department for Transport set out a vision for decarbonising transport that acknowledged the need for us to use our cars less. Whilst this focus is welcome, if the TDP is to succeed it will also need to recognise that the decarbonisation of transport must be planned in the context of the wider economy and across all key enablers of economic activity.

About the Author

This post was written by Claire Haigh. CEO of Greener Transport Solutions & Executive Director of the Transport Knowledge Hub

Claire Haigh