The war in Ukraine, the rising cost of living, an ousted prime minister: these all are having an impact on thinking about how to address the climate crisis. But one thing is certain, climate policies are backed by the public who know that they will help ween us off Russian oil and gas, and, done right, they will also address rising costs.
Last year, the Department for Transport (DfT) published its Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP). Given the new circumstances we find ourselves in now, how is this plan measuring up to its promises to deliver bold, ambitious policies to cut emissions at the same time as benefiting people?
DfT ambition isn’t keeping up with electric vehicle trends
Cars and vans are responsible for most transport emissions. As the TDP promised, the announcement of a zero emissions vehicle mandate in the Net Zero Strategy was a very welcome signal to consumers and industry about which direction the market is going in. But the recent consultation, which set out intended sales targets, failed to take into consideration the very high electric vehicle sales figures we’re seeing two years prior to the mandate being in force.
It’s encouraging that the market is already well underway but DfT needs to make sure its mandate keeps up with the times. The sooner electric vehicles dominate the new car market, the sooner they will filter down to the second and third hand markets of lower income buyers.
Electric vehicles are cheaper to run than petrol and diesel cars, so getting more of them onto the market will bring long term savings to everyone. Electric van targets are not as ambitious as cars. Van sales figures over the past few months have also been high, meaning the mandate for vans could also be raised without putting undue pressure on the vehicle manufacturing industry.
Charging points should be available to everyone, everywhere
Charging infrastructure is often cited as one of the main reasons people are anxious about buying an electric vehicle. The recent charging infrastructure strategy was a reminder that charging is being boosted across the country, and it makes a start on the TDP’s promise to “ensure the UK’s charging infrastructure network meets the demands of its users”. But distribution is still an issue. DfT should be working harder to make sure they’re available to everyone, everywhere, and should cut VAT on public charge points (which is 20 per cent, compared to the five per cent on home charging) to avoid disadvantaging people outside major urban areas and those who don’t have driveways.
Polluting freight vehicles have been given phase out dates (2040 for heavier trucks and 2035 for lighter ones), but this presents a challenge as the best alternative technology option is still not clear. Trials are ongoing, so there is uncertainty in the market about where this industry will be in a decade. While the phase out deadlines are positive, clear and urgent policies are needed to pivot away from petrol and diesel.
Aviation should pay for its pollution
Aviation remains the stubborn relative of the transport family. Close to the TDP’s anniversary, DfT will be publish its long awaited Jet Zero strategy, but the signs are it won’t be all that ambitious. Technological solutions are being overly relied on with no corresponding policies to roll them out. Aviation is inherently unfair: government provisions to boost sustainable aviation fuels and zero emission aircraft should not come from the public purse, given half of the people in the UK don’t fly in any given year, and just ten per cent of the population took over half of the international flights in 2018. This industry should obey the polluter pays principle and abide by measures to move to low carbon technologies, without increasing the taxes of those on low incomes who don’t fly.
Public transport is underfunded
Active travel and public transport infrastructure investment offers huge savings to the public at a time when costs are biting, yet public transport is underfunded and underused. Despite the TDP’s promise to make walking, cycling and public transport the “natural first choice for our daily activities”, there has been a distinct lack of policy since to improve bus and rail services. Continued service cuts and driver shortages are putting increasing strain on people who would use public transport but who are being forced to drive and pay high petrol prices.
Recent announcements on active travel infrastructure, with the establishment of Active Travel England, is good progress towards the TDP’s goals. But, again, fairness in delivery across the country should be top of DfT’s agenda.
The plan’s best feature is local control
One of the plan’s best features was its commitment to making quantifiable carbon reductions a requirement of new Local Transport Plans (LTPs). Importantly, this gives local leaders control of action to meet national emissions reduction goals. This is where a vast amount of transport policy occurs, especially around public transport and active travel. While this new guidance has not yet been consulted on, it’s a definite move in the right direction, making sure transport services reduce not only carbon, but the local problems of air pollution and congestion as well.