In search of a silver bullet

Picture by Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street
Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 29th September 2020 by Claire Haigh.

What does the UK need to do to demonstrate the kind of leadership the world needs? The pandemic may have distracted attention from the climate crisis, but the imperative of tackling that overwhelming threat has far from diminished.

Through its presidency of COP 26 its hosting of the G7 next year, the UK is uniquely positioned to promote greater international ambition and ensure a green recovery. However, the UK has yet to commit to updating its national contribution to the Paris Agreement by the end-of-2020 deadline. Progress is being hampered by a rise in Covid cases at home.

What solutions are needed nationally and internationally? Is there a silver bullet?

The first obvious point to make is that we need a green recovery from Covid-19. The CBI’s Greener Recovery Roadmap calls for the UK to become a global leader in clean energy, creating more green jobs to help economy recover. An inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal, ‘Reset’, concluded that “people want a fairer, greener, more community-oriented future”. That was also a central conclusion of the UK Climate Assembly, which has called for a tax on frequent flyers, a ban on selling SUVs and a cut in meat consumption.

The overwhelming consensus is that we must build back better. The recovery following the 2008 financial crisis saw a sharp rebound in emissions due to carbon-intensive stimulus packages. However, a landmark study from the Smith School in Oxford demonstrates that green stimulus packages are more effective at supporting increased economic activity, generating higher numbers of jobs and long-run cost savings as well as having strong potential to cut emissions.

The economic recovery from Covid-19 also needs a much sharper focus on risk and resilience. In 2019, climate change was linked to at least 15 extreme weather events costing $1-10bn each. We must put an end to economic short-termism and the maximisation of economic efficiency over the resilience of communities. Government support to companies should be conditional on climate commitments and accelerate clean energy investments.

Transport is the fastest growing source of global greenhouse gas emissions, and here the UK must demonstrate more progress. Rising demand for car and van travel is the central reason why UK transport emissions remain stubbornly high.

There is a strong green investment case for switching the £27 billion roads budget to broadband. Covid-19 has accelerated some structural changes in the economy, with more people working from home and shopping online. At the same time, we need a more efficient system for freight and logistics, and public transport must be central to reducing emissions and ensuring a fair and green recovery.

The costs of pollution should be integrated into every decision made by businesses and consumers. In a Green and Prosperous Land Dieter Helm describes “making polluters pay” as the single most radical and effective policy that could be adopted both for economic prosperity and for the environment. We should follow the “net environmental gain principle” to ensure we protect our natural capital.

Price signals should incentivize consumers to lower their carbon footprint by making lower carbon choices. How can it be cheaper to fly from London to Edinburgh than to get the train? The Rail Delivery Group calculates that emissions per passenger km for air travel is at least six times that of rail travel. The burden of taxation should be shifted to from rail to air. There should also be incentives for people to shift from road freight to rail freight. A freight train can carry on average as much as 76 HGVs.

The failure of road taxation to cover external costs means that we over consume our roads. Greener Journeys analysis has shown that the freeze in fuel duty since 2011 has caused 5% more traffic, an additional five million tonnes of CO2 emission, a quarter of a billion fewer bus journeys, and 75 million fewer rail journeys. Funding Transport (Bayliss, Glaister, Travers, March 2020) argues that in the longer term the answer is road user charging but increasing fuel duty would be a 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.

A ban on selling petrol and diesel cars from 2030 is likely to be announced imminently. Whilst this will be a big moment for car manufacturing it will do nowhere near as much as in terms of reducing emissions as would pricing properly for road use.

The closest thing to a silver bullet

Climate change is a global problem requiring global solutions. The question of equity must be central with wealthier countries decarbonising more quickly. We need to move to a system of emissions reporting based on consumption. A sustainable consumption pathway will require aggregate demand to go down.

It is tempting to look for Moonshots. Will technology save us? Can the UK become a global leader in areas such as sustainable aviation fuels, the hydrogen economy and carbon capture, utilisation and storage?

The answer may be less conducive to photo ops but would be infinitely more effective: a tax on carbon. Revenues from carbon taxes should then be rerouted to invest in green infrastructures and future technologies, and to ensure a fair and just transition.

Through its presidency of COP 26 and hosting of the G7 next year, the UK should lead international efforts to establish a strong, predictable and rising carbon price. For a Prime Minister keen on eye-catching solutions, that would be the closest thing to a silver bullet.

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).