HomeLow carbon futureWill the government be able to keep its promise to radically shift transport policy?

Will the government be able to keep its promise to radically shift transport policy?

INTEXT-BLOG-TRNASPORTThe UK’s transport sector has not stepped up to the plate in cutting carbon emissions to date, with a meagre 4.5 per cent reduction in its emissions since 1990, compared to 63 per cent in the power sector. Its performance has been lower than every other sector in the UK. Policies like freezing fuel duty, cutting funding for public transport and encouraging private car use have resulted in a consistent rise in emissions over the past two decades.

But last week a very interesting policy paper was published by the Department for Transport (DfT) setting out the context for its challenge in decarbonising the transport sector. While this paper is not the actual Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) expected later in the year, it does contain some positive signals. In fact, it acknowledges a huge gap in policy, and it highlights that, unless plans change, UK transport emissions in 2050 will be twenty times greater than they need to be. The paper identifies strategic priority areas.

Getting people out of their cars
The first and the most remarkable of these is the acknowledgement of the need to move people from private to public transport. This is not surprising, given that 60 per cent of all trips in this country are made in cars. More than half of those trips are under five miles, and cars contribute 55 per cent of our transport related carbon emissions.

This paper marks a critical shift in the approach of a department that, until now, has been dogged by its assumptions of a steady growth in car usage. What remains to be seen is if the TDP will alter these basic assumptions and support the shift signalled. The Committee on Climate Change assumes a ten per cent shift away from cars by 2050 in its net zero analysis, but there is scope for much more.

Place based solutions
Another welcome strategic priority is ‘place based solutions’ to transport planning. This is an important area of our current research, as we are working on local authorities’ climate emergency declarations. It highlights the value of local solutions designed to address the unique challenges that different authorities face. Cities, towns, countryside, suburbs, tourist hotspots, ecologically sensitive areas, freight corridors, global aviation hubs and port side authorities all have complex local factors that need to be considered in planning transport. Subnational transport bodies, along with local authorities, are already drawing up their transport priorities, but all of them lack key details on how they aim to decarbonise.

The Joint Local Action Plan (JLTP4) of the four west of England local authorities is a case in point. Published earlier in the year, the plan aims to achieve carbon neutrality in the transport sector by 2030 but it fails to set out a clear policy roadmap to meeting that target. Instead, it identifies some prospective policies, the carbon impact of which is highly uncertain. What is clear, however, is the need for stronger national policy and an increased allocation of resources to local authorities to do more.

Electrification and decarbonisation
One area where the government is far more active is the electrification of vehicles. The policy paper is bullish on the prospects of electric vehicle growth in the UK, with billions of pounds being invested in charging infrastructure. We have argued that one powerful policy to put the UK on track to net zero would be to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030. This is feasible, as long as the government sustains incentives to increase consumer demand, alongside mandates on manufacturers.

The paper refers to innovative solutions in areas such as the ‘last mile’ delivery of goods. Digitalisation can help to create an optimised, integrated delivery system, which we’ve explored in our recent work on smart mobility.

A critical aspect of transport decarbonisation that the paper fails to address is around the notion of transport poverty and equity. The low carbon transition should ensure that costs and benefits are distributed fairly. That means those on low incomes burdened by high transport costs (for example running older, less efficient cars) should be given better access to clean, affordable forms of transport, including electric vehicles. Leaving this inequality for other government departments to address is a blind spot in transport policy making.

2020 was to be a big year for transport
The coronavirus lockdown may change this timetable, but 2020 was set to be a busy year for transport policy: with promised announcements on National Bus Strategy and the Conservative manifesto commitment to spend £5 billion on it; a consultation on net zero aviation; a detailed review of electric vehicle charging infrastructure; a future of transport regulatory review; a science plan to focus on emerging research and innovation challenges; and a new £100 billion investment programme in roads, rail and other infrastructure.

But the DfT is honest in acknowledging that “whilst we know the scale of the challenge, we do not currently know the optimal path for delivering a decarbonised transport network”, it will, therefore, work with stakeholders across the country through workshops to “design the package of decarbonisation policies that can serve the needs of both passengers and wider society”.

The transport industry and its finances, along with the rest of the economy, will take a severe hit from the current crisis and, in all likelihood, it will be seeking respite through stimulus packages from the Treasury. But, if the government takes its own analysis seriously, then part of the resolution of the pandemic cannot be to delay action on transport modernisation. In the longer term, we need cleaner air and to do all we can to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis.

There is such a thing as ‘society’, as the PM recently stated. That society, after this crisis, should be able to use and rely on transport that enhances mobility, makes us healthier and connects communities, and that means much more use of buses, rail, walking and cycling to get around.

Written by

Senior policy advisor at Green Alliance, UK. Former climate campaigner at