The long term will be decided by current policy and projects

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 15th September 2021 by Professor Phil Goodwin.

It’s over 100 years since the effect of burning fossil fuel on climate has been established, and for the last 30 years the UK and other Governments have been agreeing many policy statements about reducing transport’s contribution to CO2 production, and climate change.

During that period the amount of CO2 emitted by transport has increased.

That’s because these good intentions have been subverted by decisions on resource allocation and infrastructures, appraised by calculations purporting to see 60 or more years into the future, but in reality, short sighted and unrealistic. Climate change is now with us, and its future will be determined by what happens in the rest of this decade.

There are three consequences:

First: Immediacy

The flagship electrification of vehicles through new sales makes little difference in the next ten years: carbon vehicles are getting bigger and last too long. That’s why overall traffic – vehicle miles travelled – will have to reduce as well.

The main test now of a successful long term plan is radical measures that can have the biggest effect in the shortest time period.  One of the clear winners on that front is speed: it has long been known that reducing speed conserves energy and therefore reduces CO2 production. The ‘20’s Plenty’ campaign for a default 20mph speed limit in towns was initially inspired by reducing deaths and injuries, but accompanied by measures to reduce and calm traffic it can reduce carbon as well. So can a 60 mph speed limit on motorways.

Concerning cycling and walking:  the main constraint is regulation and enforcement, which – if there is political will – can be faster than new infrastructure, let alone technologies that do not yet exist. Allocation of road capacity, enforcement on illegal behaviour, restrictions on access for the most polluting vehicles, all can be done swiftly. (I’ll repeat: if there is political will. Without that we are lost anyway). And while the shortest trips only account for a small proportion of the carbon, rebalancing a proportion of medium and longer trips to be local, less frequent or online can save much more.


Second: Consistency

Don’t adopt parking policies which undermine traffic policies, or price structures which embed car dependence. A full road pricing system has always been described as ten years away for at least the last six decades. But taxes are changed on an annual cycle, and sometimes even more frequently. Every year in which the money cost of car use is so much less than its social cost, and so much less than public transport, is a contribution to making climate change worse. The case for taxing carbon is very simple, and it can be done through the tax system – certainly it is more straightforward than proposed changes in the national insurance increases, which are a tax on employment. Carbon tax can raise more money, more equitably, more beneficially, and its first stage – petrol and diesel  – just as swiftly.

Third: Protection

Debates have focused on the effect of transport on climate change, but there are also urgent questions of the effect of climate change on transport.

The levees in New Orleans worked in protecting against Ida, this time, and were a tribute to a massive civil engineering flood protection infrastructure investment. But the New York subway system failed catastrophically, and the whole system was forced to close down. Climate change does not only affect sea levels. It is also already affecting all water flows: rivers, canals, run-off, and indeed water supply, drainage and sewage. We will need civil engineers, and infrastructure investment, but for protection, not road schemes designed for futures which are no longer on offer.

Transport has to be flexible, able to respond swiftly to emergencies, and contribute both to limiting the extent of climate change and being able to operate in changed climate conditions.  Therefore, mass transport will become even more dependent on buses, whose routing and services are inherently flexible, but need to be higher quality, more reliable, and cheaper. There will be new rail systems, especially in cities where they are vital, but I’d say that we might need to be very wary of tunneling, for obvious reasons: trams, not metros. This requires reallocation of road space and is usually much easier to enforce.

Fourth: Appraisal

Finally, a comment on the new carbon appraisal values. They admit that carbon has been drastically undervalued, and that’s welcome. But they are not prices, they are still lower than the value of the damage, and they are only one of a dozen other embedded barriers against taking proper account of climate change in appraisal. The new values won’t make a big difference to actual projects unless the others are tackled at the same time. I’ll be writing on that separately.

This is an edited version of Phil Goodwin’s contribution to the second webinar in the ‘Rising to the Challenge: What will it take to decarbonise transport?’ Greener Transport Solutions’ series.

Watch the recording here.

About the Author

This post was written by Professor Phil Goodwin. Phil is Emeritus Professor of Transport Policy at UCL and UWE, and Senior Fellow of the Foundation for Integrated Transport.