Decarbonising Transport: Summary & Reflections

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 9th April 2020 by Claire Haigh.

Today we find ourselves in a new reality. It is hard to believe that our Decarbonising Transport event was just one month ago. Since then the world has changed beyond recognition. The battle against Covid-19 has the potential to devastate large swathes of the economy. Measures are in place to mitigate the direct impact of the lockdown, but once the immediate crisis has passed there will be questions about ongoing viability for countless businesses and entire sectors of the economy.

A worldwide economic recession looks unavoidable, the question is whether we are heading for a depression. Crucially, what impact will this have on efforts to tackle climate change? The delay to COP26 makes sense, but the priority for the next UN climate summit must be to ensure that economic recovery is built on low carbon infrastructure. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that “we have a responsibility to recover better than after the financial crisis in 2008”.

For the transport sector the pandemic presents an existential crisis. The lockdown has meant that passenger trips have fallen off a cliff. The airline industry may never recover. In the longer term the risk is that Covid-19 will accelerate structural changes already underway in the economy. What impact will an increased shift to home-working and online shopping, for example, have on bus and rail companies already suffering from the impact of changing work patterns and retail habits?

From a decarbonisation perspective, any fall in transport emissions as a result of the lockdown will be short-lived if the pandemic does long term damage to public transport. Transport is the biggest emitting sector of the UK economy. Rising demand for car and van travel is one of the main reasons why transport emissions remain stubbornly high and why it is the only sector to have increased emissions over the last carbon budget. Public transport has a critically important role to play in decarbonising our transport system. A double decker bus can take 75 cars off the road.

In its immediate response to Covid-19 the Government has demonstrated that it recognises the vital importance of public transport both in keeping a reduced time-table of essential services running in the short term, and to stimulate and level up the economy in the longer term. In its policy paper Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, it is notable that DfT lists “accelerating modal shift to public and active transport” as the first of six strategic priorities for its forthcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

Against this backdrop, the conclusions of the TKH workshop provide key insights to help inform policy makers navigating the challenges of decarbonising transport. Leading academics and key figures from the transport sector presented on what would be a credible and politically deliverable framework. The growing urgency of the climate crisis, and its disproportionate impact on the poorest in society, requires us to decarbonise rapidly and at scale whilst mitigating any negative social impacts. Some key themes emerged from the discussion:

We need a total reformulation of transport pricing

The subject of Professor Stephen Glaister’s presentation was a joint paper Funding Transport[i] which is published today by the Transport Knowledge Hub. His central argument was that we must give more attention to prices and taxation and reverse the decline in fuel duty if we are to succeed in moving sensibly at low compliance costs to zero carbon. In the longer term the obvious answer is road user charging but in the meantime fuel duty is useful interim measure. To make any increase in fuel duty less unacceptable to the public, the incremental revenue should be ring-fenced and made available to local authorities for beneficial transport purposes. One way to do that would be to use public trusts as these legally require trustees to use money for a dedicated purpose.

There was strong agreement that the external costs of transport should be internalised. Professor Glenn Lyons argued that consideration should be given to how today’s digitally connected society could support personalised mobility pricing. Professor Jillian Anable suggested that we should avoid terms like ‘road pricing’ and ‘congestion charging’ as these are toxic and politically undeliverable. Instead we should use terms like ‘eco-charge’ and ‘eco-levy’. Gareth Powell, Managing Director of Surface Transport for TfL highlighted the ULEZ as an example of how pricing can successfully be used to change behaviour when linked to air quality. Andy Eastlake, Managing Director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership commented that when we stopped escalating the fuel price, people became less engaged with the CO2 of their vehicle. This has contributed to the rise in new car CO2.

Public and shared transport must be central to decarbonisation

Professor Helm emphasised that transport is a USO, a universal service obligation. No citizen can participate in our society unless they have access to transport. Professor Anable concurred with this and stressed that every citizen has a basic human right to live without a car. She cited Munich and Zurich as examples of places where these principles are written into local transport infrastructure plans, where for every settlement there are minimum public transport service requirements.

Gareth Powell highlighted that TfL aims to have 80% of Londoners’ trips by walking, cycling or public transport, and that TfL operates the largest zero emission bus fleet in Europe. Even without significant decarbonisation public transport is “self-evidently a much more efficient way in carbon terms as well as in movement terms of getting people to move around the city”. Andy Eastlake emphasised that a sustainable transport system must have mass transit at its core. The key is to use efficient low carbon vehicles intensively.

We must reform the current appraisal system

Our current framework for analysing public investments is on the basis of cost benefit analysis which looks at each project in its own right. Professor Helm argued that whilst this matters what is really going to drive decarbonisation is having a low carbon road, rail, air integrated system. This will require central planning and system regulation. Professor Anable stressed that total packages of policies must be appraised, not single schemes, and we must prioritise carbon reduction. For example, we must appraise the whole of the RIS2, the road building programme, at the same time.

Cllr Joanna Wright, Cabinet Member for Transport Services at Bath and North East Somerset Council argued that WebTAG poses a big challenge for local authorities as the values can be misleading and unhelpful in the context of decarbonisation. Hilary Chipping, CEO of South East Midlands LEP agreed that the appraisal system needs to be made more effective. WebTAG has focused predominantly on travel time savings, but the key question is to get money into integrated transport solutions and how to integrate sustainable transport with new developments.

Digitalisation will drive the entire economy

Professor Helm emphasised that the fibre networks are the premier and primary infrastructures of the future upon which everything else is going to depend. Whilst policy makers understand the importance of electrification and smart systems, few recognise just how far digitalisation will drive the entire economy and therefore the choices that we have to make about whether we actually want transport, what form of transport we require, and how we require to get from A to B. Our current system of regulation its precisely designed not to address the integration of transport into our digital world, and into our economy in a decarbonisation context.

Professor Lyons concurred that digital connectivity has grown massively in terms of gaining access remotely to people, goods, services and opportunities. Travel is a derived demand and he referred to the ‘triple access system’, whereby one can combine transport with good land use planning a very mature telecommunications system. The challenge to overcome in delivering this is the silos of government nationally and locally.

Technical solutions will not be sufficient

Professor Anable argued powerfully that technical solutions will fail us. We would have to stop selling petrol and diesel tomorrow because of how long they stay in the fleet. Andy Eastlake commented that whist there have been some successes in reducing carbon intensity, we need to think fundamentally about travel demand. Over the last 10 years the grid has decarbonized by 50% and renewable fuels have delivered 78% carbon reduction compared with fossil fuels. However, only 0.7% of cars are electric and only 4% of fuels in cars are renewable.

Technical solutions have long been central to Government policy. Whilst these remain important, it is encouraging that in Setting the Challenge there is now a clear recognition that decarbonisation of transport will not happen without behaviour change and that reduction in car use must be a priority: “We want public transport and active travel to be the natural first choice for our daily activities”. Once the immediate crisis of Covid-19 has passed, this presents a major opportunity for the public transport sector to engage with Government and help shape the Transport Decarbonisation Plan.


[i] Funding Transport by David Bayliss, Stephen Glaister and Tony Travers, March 2020

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).