Is this Government serious about Decarbonising Transport?

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 19th August 2021 by Dr Steve Melia.

Is this government serious about decarbonising transport, or is their Decarbonisation Plan just political hype? I was reflecting on that as I prepared to give evidence to the planning inquiry into North Somerset Council’s refusal to allow Bristol Airport to expand.  Ironically, their attempts to fudge the issues around aviation may have inadvertently strengthened the case for local authorities seeking to resist airport expansion.  I will return to that below, but let’s start with surface transport.

My colleague Glenn Lyons wrote an assessment of the Decarbonisation Plan, just after its publication, coming to a “glass is half-full” conclusion.  Having read the plan and several of its supporting documents I would say: it depends how you look at it.  If you ask: ‘what opportunities does this plan present to transport planners?’ you will find reasons for optimism.  But if you ask “will it achieve the targets it has set?” the answer must be: no – not without further measures.

The most positive statement in the plan is its Strategic Priority Number 1: accelerating modal shift to public and active travel.  In the introduction, Grant Shapps adds “we want to reduce urban traffic overall.”  If nothing else, those two statements should strengthen the hand of local transport planners, particularly in Conservative-controlled authorities.  The public often imagine that governments have always wanted to “get us out of our cars”, but for most of this century that was not true.  Ministers and civil servants under the Blair government adopted the term “modal agnosticism”, which we can now finally consign to history.

The plan reaffirms government support for low traffic neighbourhoods and segregated cycle lanes, although it is vague about how and where they should be implemented.  It commits the DfT to publish a Transport Decarbonisation Toolkit for local authorities, covering behaviour change, space reallocation, spatial planning and congestion charging, amongst other measures.  The devil, or opportunities, may appear in the details of that toolkit.

The plan announces several consultations.  The most important ones concerns the phasing-out of diesel HGVs and buses.  2040 is their proposed date, which implies that ten year-old vehicles would have to be scrapped (or converted) in 2050.

The plan emphasises the legally-binding nature of the Sixth Carbon Budget (requiring a 63% cut in emissions between 2019 and the mid-2030s) and recognises that transport, the largest emitting sector, must make a “sizeable contribution” to it.  The truest statement in the whole document is that this “may require additional targeted action to enable these targets to be met”.  It certainly will.

The plan differentiates proposes restraint and modal shift in urban areas but supports continuing expansion of inter-urban road traffic.  A DfT study a few years ago showed how two-thirds of the carbon emissions from cars come from journeys longer than ten miles.[i]  The vast majority of those journeys are inter-urban, and yet, the Decarbonisation Plan reaffirms the government’s commitment to big road building.  To meet the Sixth Carbon Budget, the Climate Change Committee estimates that traffic volumes would need to fall 17% by 2050, assuming that 97% of new cars would be purely electric by 2030 – a timescale which the government has extended to 2035.  The Decarbonisation Plan does nothing to close that gap.

The gap between commitments and policy is most obvious in the section on aviation.  To understand their approach, you have to read across several documents published at the same time, particularly the Jet Zero Consultation and its accompanying Analysis and Evidence.  Surprisingly, they have adopted a ‘High Ambition’ emission trajectory for aviation, which cuts slightly deeper than the Climate Change Committee’s ‘Balanced Pathway’.  The assumptions behind the latter include “no net expansion of UK airports”.  Jet Zero avoids any commitments on airport capacity but states that “we currently believe the sector can achieve Jet Zero without the Government needing to intervene directly to limit aviation growth.”  Why do they believe that? The Analysis and Evidence explains that their High Ambition Scenario is based on “optimistic” assumptions, taken from the aviation industry, which is lobbying hard to avoid any constraints on its growth.

Much of Jet Zero is about supporting British industry to seize the opportunity of decarbonisation to innovate and sell new products.  Viewed from that perspective it makes some sense, but it provides no evidence to show that any of the optimistic scenarios are likely to happen.  A Technology Roadmap, also published at the same time, provides a more realistic assessment of the likely progress of new zero-carbon technologies in aviation.  The Decarbonisation Plan reproduces the timeline from the Roadmap without mentioning how it differs from the government’s own optimistic assumptions.[ii]  To take just one example, the government is consulting on fully decarbonising domestic aviation by 2040.  The Technology Roadmap says that is unlikely to be possible – even by 2050.

As with surface transport, they add a caveat that “as a responsible government, we will need to keep our Strategy under review” which is a time-honoured way of deferring difficult decisions to future governments.  A footnote to Jet Zero states that: “expansion of any airport must meet its climate change obligations.”[iii]  This offers a useful tool to local authorities and campaigners against airport expansion.  It refers to an earlier policy document and I cannot be sure whether this marks a clarification or a change in policy.  Either way, the message is clear: you local authorities must make your own decisions; we are not claiming that our current national policies will be sufficient to reach the legal carbon targets.

Conventional politics works by compromise between competing interests.  That can lead to progress, where there is a continuous relationship between policy and outcome.  For example, a bit more funding and a bit more effort might reduce road casualties or child poverty.  If those measures aren’t effective, governments can keep things under review and do more later on.  But climate change doesn’t work like that.   We are heading rapidly towards tipping points, beyond which, humanity will lose the ability to control our own destiny.  As North America burns and Germany starts to mop up, our government remains dangerously complacent.


Steve’s book, Roads Runways and Resistance – from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion, is published by Pluto Press.

[i] DfT (2008) Carbon Footprint Analysis.  See Figures 3.13 and 3.14

[ii] DfT (2021) Transport Decarbonisation Plan.  Pages 204-5

[iii] DfT (2021) Jet Zero Consultation.  Endnote 39

About the Author

This post was written by Dr Steve Melia. Steve is a Senior Lecturer in transport and planning at the University of the West of England.