This post is by Helena Bennett, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance.
For those of us working hard to make sure that transport, the biggest emitting sector, is fit for a low carbon world, 2021 was a year of ups and downs. Although some may think that little actual progress was made towards cutting transport emissions, the Department for Transport (DfT) did significantly change its tone and ambition, and the government is at least starting to set out how it will deliver on its climate promises in the coming years.
The transport decarbonisation plan failed the test
After a slow start, DfT finally published the long awaited transport decarbonisation plan (TDP) in July. Although, despite running to 216 pages, it failed to meet many of the tests that we and others set for it. There were no clear interim targets, nor were there any specific policies, regulations or funding to back up the vision it laid out.
What it did contain though was a wealth of mixed messaging. Alongside previously unimaginable green aims from the transport department, such as wanting “walking, cycling or public transport to be the natural first choice for journeys”, the most ambitious policies remained firmly under the umbrella of technological solutions.
Walking and cycling are unlikely to become people’s first choice unless there are clear measures to encourage them out of their cars. Last year, we explored the level of traffic reduction needed, and DfT still needs to set specific targets for this, similar to Scotland’s target of reducing car miles 20 per cent by 2030. We also highlighted the specific challenges of a technology-only approach in relation to critical raw material supply and imagined the financial and social benefits of turning car parking spaces over to more urban green space and trees in a major UK city.
Local authorities have to be given more power over transport
The TDP and the net zero strategy that followed it last autumn both recognise that local authorities have a very important role to play. It is now imperative they are given the resources necessary to align local transport plans with net zero. This, and other aspects of a low carbon transition, would be made a lot easier if the DfT fostered stronger links with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DHLUC), the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Close work with DHLUC will be critical, in particular, to put the need for low carbon transport at the heart of any reform of the planning system.
One of the biggest transport wins of 2021 was the promise of zero emissions vehicle sales targets – a ZEV mandate – something we called for early last year. We will now be looking at the percentage it mandates. Setting the bar high will help the government cement its claim that it is a climate leader, reducing emissions and driving up investment in UK electric vehicle and battery manufacturing. This will lead the way for a clean truck transition too.
Transport taxes need review
With this mandate on the horizon and electric vehicle sales now booming , the Treasury will need to start thinking about how it replaces lost fuel duty revenue, probably through new road pricing. This is going to be a hot topic and the public conversation about it and other alternatives should begin as soon as possible. There’s growing evidence that taxes aligned with climate goals are supported by the public. In 2022, we will be looking at how to align transport taxes with net zero.
The Treasury continues to present barriers to green progress. October’s comprehensive spending review highlighted its continued ambivalence around climate action, with cuts to rail electrification, and the perverse decision to reduce air passenger duty on domestic flights.
Aviation growth has to be addressed
Two major aviation consultations, released alongside the TDP, indicate that there will soon be a sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) mandate, and the Jet Zero Strategy is expected. However, DfT projects a 60 per cent increase in passenger numbers up to 2050 which, under any scenario, will not lower emission levels. In fact, even with the introduction of an ambitious SAF mandate, emissions from aviation are not expected to peak until the mid-2030s. When there is a legally binding target to reduce emissions across the whole UK economy by 78 per cent by 2035, aviation cannot continue to operate out on a limb in the same way it has done, encouraging unabated growth and not abiding by the polluter pays principle.
So far, neither the government nor the aviation industry’s plans will cut emissions from flying fast enough. This puts undue pressure on other sectors and, because aviation is such a significant emitter, it increases the risk that net zero will not be achieved by 2050.
The next few years will be vital for the Jet Zero Council (a government and industry body set up to accelerate zero emission aviation) to prove that the innovative tech solutions being relied on to decarbonise the industry will be commercially viable and scalable for 2050. We recently gave oral evidence to the Transport Select Committee, and are now looking at how a sub-mandate for potentially more sustainable and scalable synthetic fuels (ekerosene) could be introduced and its potential to create new UK jobs.
Transport announcements at COP26 fell short
The COP26 climate summit, last November, was expected to be a keystone for low carbon transport announcements, but it wasn’t exactly. The high point was the UK’s announcement of a phase out date for HGVs: 2035 for smaller trucks and 2040 for the rest, becoming the first country to phase out all fossil road vehicles. But the next step will be for DfT to promptly deliver its trials of differently powered trains (testing batteries, hydrogen and catenary cables) while providing a clear technology neutral delivery plan for the transition. Whether that is through an HGV mandate or otherwise is not yet clear, but it is something to watch out for in the coming months.
Aviation fell short, with the launch of the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition only having 21 signatories, with a weak aim to advance “ambitious actions to reduction aviation CO2 emissions”. And, while the declaration to phase out the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles was a good first step, there was also not nearly enough traction, as fewer than forty countries and eleven automotive manufacturers signed up.
At home, the government needs to do more to align its messaging on transport and live up to its promises. The glaring contradictions can no longer be ignored: from the continued building of new roads while promising more walking and cycling, to the cuts to air passenger duty when aviation is responsible for such high CO2 emissions, and hiking up rail fares at the same time as the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail says that the “railways need to encourage a shift away from planes and cars”.
This year should be the year for greater transparency and clarity around plans and policy on transport. We will be watching closely and holding the government accountable for all it has promised.