The Transport Decarbonisation Plan is a good start, but more is needed to make transport genuinely green
Last week, the government published its strategy for a greener transport system, the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, which has been welcomed for new policies on electric vehicles and a significant positive shift in tone around cycling, walking and public transport. While it also recognises the many benefits that come from making transport greener – healthier lifestyles, savings for consumers and hundreds of thousands of new jobs – what will this plan actually change?
1. The end of an era for polluting vehicles
The plan spells the end of an era for polluting vehicles in the UK. Subject to consultation later this year, all new vehicles sold after 2040 will have to be zero emission – the first commitment of its type worldwide.
The government announced the phaseout of new petrol and diesel car and van sales in its ten point plan last year. This new plan goes further and sets a 2035 phase out date for small trucks, and 2040 phase out for heavier trucks. These are huge steps for climate policy, as emissions from cars, vans and trucks make up around 20 per cent of the UK’s total emissions. It also sends a strong message to the private sector to ramp up investment in zero emission vehicles.
We were pleased to see the consult on the introduction of a Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate (ZEV mandate), which we have recently called for. The CCC recommends rapid transition to electric vehicles (EVs), with battery electric vehicles accounting for around half of all new cars sold in 2025 and nearly 100 per cent by 2030. In setting EV sales targets for manufacturers, a ZEV mandate will increase the EVs available on the market. This will drive down upfront costs and push more EVs onto the second hand market sooner, making them affordable for more households.
2. Positive rhetoric on active travel
Beyond cars, the plan has committed to “making public transport, cycling and walking the natural first choice”. But many were disappointed not to see new policies or funding for active travel and public transport, although the plan promises announcements on cycling and walking later this summer.
The new requirement for local authorities to align local transport plans with climate aims could be transformational, but only if they are well resourced to do it. The plan also promises that the transport department will work with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure low carbon transport is at the heart of the planning reforms. This could signal an important shift away from building new developments that lock in car-dependent lifestyles.
3. Aviation falls short
The elephant in the room is aviation. Pre-pandemic, flying caused around ten per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions are projected to grow in the coming decades, despite plummeting demand during the pandemic.
The plan sets a new 2040 net zero target for domestic aviation and a 2050 target for all aviation emissions. The solutions put forward include increasing the use of fuels that are less polluting than kerosene and developing new fuel and aircraft technologies, which the experts say won’t exist at scale by 2050. That is why the plan’s own predictions show that aviation emissions could remain flat until 2050, even once the government’s policies are put in place. To deal with the remaining emissions in 2050, the plan relies on a large amount of offsetting, but this will be in high demand from many quarters by 2050, and the technology and capacity for it does not yet exist at the scale necessary.
Instead, the plan should have set out how to keep flights at manageable levels, including by placing a much-needed ban airport expansion, introducing new taxes like a frequent flier levy, and incentivising train journeys.
4. Funding change and monitoring progress
The plan does not announce any new funding. Whether for rolling out active travel infrastructure, supporting a countrywide EV charging network, scaling up zero emission freight or reforming fares to make public transport and rail more attractive and affordable, new funding must be made available for greener transport and to stimulate private sector investment. We will be watching to see if the Treasury’s upcoming net zero review and the autumn spending review are used as opportunities to do so.
Progress needs monitoring. The plan has been published but more needs to happen, and sooner rather than later, to meet the UK’s legal commitments to climate action. The Department for Transport says it will be monitoring and reporting on progress every five years, with the Transport Minister Rachel Maclean, stating at our event last week that the department “cannot leave this five years; we will be continuously monitoring”. Parliament and select committees will also have an important role to play in this. And, while there are no interim targets for transport emissions in the plan, the forthcoming net zero strategy should establish them in every sector and set clear expectations of all departments.
As Transport Secretary Grant Shapps says, transport decarbonisation is about “creating cleaner, quieter, healthier places; it’s about a second, green, industrial revolution”. To realise this vision, the government must translate its ambition into results that can be seen by every community across the country. This plan is a good start but the journey to genuinely green transport is far from over.