Decarbonising Transport

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 8th November 2019 by Claire Haigh.

Pressure to deliver a credible plan for net zero will weigh heavily on whoever is in Number 10 on the 13th December. Heightened levels of public concern about climate change will be in even sharper focus next year when the UK hosts COP26.

Let’s start by acknowledging the scale of the challenge. If we are to achieve our net zero target, the changes we will need to make to our economy are so profound that the way we live our lives in 2050 will be unrecognisably different to today.

Current frameworks for thinking about social, economic and environmental sustainability are no longer fit for purpose. Every aspect of how we plan our economy needs to change, and all parts of society will need to be engaged in that change, across every level of government, business and the general public. Many of the changes needed will require unprecedented levels of international cooperation.

This is the prism through which to view the forthcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan. Transport is a microcosm of the whole economy, and inextricably linked to every other sector. The principles applied to decarbonising transport need to be consistent with the decarbonisation of the UK economy as a whole in an interdependent world.

The first imperative is to reduce energy demand. Energy demand reduction supports all key goals of energy policy – security, affordability and sustainability. The International Energy Agency describes demand reduction as “the first fuel”. However, current UK Government policy as articulated in Clean Growth Strategy, Road to Zero and Future of Aviation assumes that demand for travel will grow.

Transport is currently 98% dependent on fossil fuels. The focus of UK policy is to reduce use of fossil fuels by more efficient end use technologies and changes in the fuel source. There are major problems with an approach that gives insufficient focus to demand side measures. For example, electric vehicles are likely to reduce the cost of motoring and lead to further increases in traffic. EVs do nothing to address the central problem of congestion which greatly worsens pollution.

A whole systems approach is needed. The decarbonisation of transport cannot occur without changes to the wider economy. Professor Nick Eyre of the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford argues that delivering a secure, affordable and sustainable energy system will require an energy transition on the scale of the industrial revolution. The sustainable energy transition will not just involve the shift from unsustainable fuels to renewables but also changes in how, when and where these fuels are used and what human activities they enable and support.

The wider system of taxation, incentives and fiscal measures is of fundamental importance. The aim of public policy around climate change should be to ensure that wherever possible external costs are internalized. Price signals should incentivize consumers to lower their carbon footprint by making lower carbon choices. Focus should not only be on environmental taxes but also upon the consequences of the fiscal system as a whole for outputs that are relevant to decarbonisation.

The result of repeated failures of road taxation to cover externalities is that we over consume roads and purchase of cleaner vehicles has been lower than forecast. The freeze in fuel duty since 2011 for example has led to 4% more traffic and an additional 4.5 million tonnes of CO2. Vehicle Excise Duty could be used much more effectively to incentivise the purchase of lower emissions vehicles. Demand management measures such as road pricing will need to be at the heart of decarbonising transport.

We must ensure a fair and just transition. This is particularly important given that more than half the emissions reductions needed to reach net zero will require people to make major changes to how they live their lives. Scotland has set aside £3 billion for a Green New Deal. Many are now calling for a Green New Deal for the rest of the UK.

The Treasury’s review into how the costs of the transition to a Net Zero economy by 2050 can be funded and distributed fairly will be a welcome step towards ensuring that the impacts on businesses and households are properly assessed. Procedural fairness is also going to be key. Climate Assembly UK, commissioned by six cross-party House of Commons Select Committees, will play an important role in finding solutions which are equitable and have public support.

We need a vision for the future which can inspire local decision makers to create places free of congestion and pollution. Local leaders should be empowered and supported in moving to a strategy of “avoid, shift and improve”: avoid individual motorised transport; shift to sustainable transport; and improve efficiency and reduce total emissions. Integrating transport with land use planning will be key to unlocking inclusive and sustainable growth. New housing developments in urban centres well connected by public transport can stimulate 50% more economic growth than similar developments located at the fringe, whilst dramatically reducing congestion and pollution.

Empowering local leadership will require a reform to transport funding and governance so that local areas can plan for housing, jobs and transport on an integrated long-term basis. A reform of appraisal is also needed. The National Infrastructure Commission has highlighted that existing appraisal methods may distort choice of scheme, leading to bias projects towards the most easily appraised outcomes such as faster journeys, rather than harder to identify objectives such as integrating housing, jobs and transport.

Finally, we must raise levels of international ambition. One area that urgently calls for greater leadership and cooperation is international aviation and shipping emissions (IAS). CCC has highlighted that aviation is likely to be the largest emitting sector in the UK by 2050, even with strong progress on technology and limiting demand. Formal inclusion of IAS in the UK’s net zero target would send a strong signal to the rest of the world.

COP26 provides the UK with an opportunity to lead by example and promote greater international ambition and cooperation. It is important to acknowledge that the UK has a strong track record. Between 1990 and 2017 the UK has reduced emissions by 42% whilst growing the economy by two thirds. The UK has been first major economy in the world to legislate to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.

Whatever the outcome of the election, we can be sure that the next Government will want to keep UK in the vanguard on this agenda. The eyes of the world will be on us.

About the Author

This post was written by Claire Haigh. Founder & CEO of Greener Vision & Executive Director of the Transport Knowledge Hub. Claire was previously CEO of Greener Transport Solutions (2021-2022) and CEO of Greener Journeys (2009-2020).