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Net zero: an update from the transport committee

Green Alliance is tracking the UK’s net zero policy progress in key areas of government throughout this year. This week we are featuring a series of daily blogs in which we hear from the chairs of five parliamentary select committees, who answer our questions about the progress being made in their committee’s area of interest. This post is by Huw Merriman MP, chair of the Transport Select Committee.

Is your select committee holding any inquiries which are relevant to the UK’s net zero ambitions?  
Transport accounts for the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions of any sector. Moving to low carbon solutions for travel must be part of the UK’s path to meeting its legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050. We’ve pledged that each Transport Committee inquiry will incorporate this challenge.

Surface transport provides 70 per cent of all transport emissions. The government’s ban on the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 presents opportunities and challenges. In our inquiry into zero emission vehicles and road pricing, we’re asking what actions are required from government, local authorities and the private sector to increase the production and take up of these vehicles and deliver the infrastructure required for an electric car market. 

We’re also putting questions directly to drivers. Research shows that most registrations of new battery electric vehicles in 2020 were made by commercial fleets, not private consumers. Our survey asks drivers what influences their decision to buy an electric vehicle. (You can still take part before 2 June).  

The resulting shortfall in tax revenue creates a headache for the chancellor of the exchequer, who stands to lose around £40 billion annual income from fuel and excise duty. Road pricing could plug that hole. It could also bring in a pricing mechanism to change behaviour and lead to a reduction in air pollution and the overall carbon footprint of transport. We’ll examine this further in the autumn.

Infrastructure, while good for the economy, is a major contributor to emissions. The government has changed the spending rules to ensure that projects which deliver net zero are as valid as those which deliver bang for the buck. Ensuring the delivery of both is one of the features of our inquiry into the appraisal and delivery of major transport infrastructure.   

Travelling by rail has environmental advantages but much of the network is diesel powered. InTrains fit for the future? we recommend the government cracks on with electrification but keeps an eye out for the benefits of hydrogen and battery, should their credentials be developed.  

Where do you believe the government has done well in decarbonising transport? 
The government has set some important goals, such as the ending of sales of the combustion engine and the decarbonisation of rail. It could be argued that these ‘big bang’ expiration dates are needed to drive new markets.

These dates must be backed up with timelines, project plans and delivery. Looking at the transition to electric cars, we’re asking whether we have the infrastructure in place for the national grid to cope with demand. We may need to work smarter and change our mindsets from ‘filling up the tank when empty’ to ‘little and often’. Our inquiry will consider whether the market can deliver and how the government and local authorities can create the certainty which industry and consumers require. 

The government is to be commended on its commitment to improving bus services and active travel. Buses are the UK’s most popular form of public transport, but our predecessor committee’s 2019 report painted a picture of steady decline amid uncoordinated, fragmented government policy. The committee called for a single, unified approach. 

In March, the government delivered a national strategy heralding funding for cheaper, greener bus services and partnerships between local authorities and operators to improve services. However, local transport authorities who are short on staff and expertise need time and assistance to access the promised funding streams and government support. 

The introduction of e-scooters last year is an exciting example of new technology which has the potential to be a low cost, accessible, and environmentally friendly alternative to the private car. The committee supports both private and rental markets but looks to technology to ensure they are not used on pedestrian paths. The department has said that encouraging people to make the switch for some short journeys will be a key measure of success in the trials which are running across the UK until the autumn.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for decarbonising transport on the path to net zero?  
The greatest challenge will be having the political will to persuade the consumer to move away from the ‘tried and trusted’ and switch to different forms of transport with a pricing mechanism which will not deliver financial savings for everyone.

If we are serious about delivering net zero, as well as reducing obesity, then we need to not only switch from combustion to electric, but from the car to other modes of transport. It’s all well and good hailing electric as a greener alternative but look deeper, only around 40 per cent of electricity comes from renewables. It’s still a dirty enterprise which takes a lot out of the system. As an example, rail already accounts for one per cent of the national grid (even before we ramp up electrification).

Price can be an important mechanism in reducing the carbon footprint of travel. The UK can provide a model for the rest of the globe. When it comes to road pricing, the key example is London. Yet, the congestion zone charges car users in London the same price for driving one mile into the zone as those who drive across it for hours in a day. As the introduction of plastic bag charges demonstrates, pricing an item as a unit leads to consumers reducing units spent and, therefore, overall consumption.

Successive governments have shied away from these challenges. This government has a combination of ambitious targets, support from the public for net zero delivery and a taxation black hole to fill. If not now, when will we have such a great opportunity to green our transport sector and deliver the health benefits of moving away from a steering wheel?

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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