The Transport Decarbonisation Plan: The work starts here

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 26th July 2021 by Greg Marsden.

At 220 pages in length the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP from here!) is a reflection of the huge scale of the challenge facing the sector to decarbonise both quickly and completely. So why, when we have just seen the launch of such a critical plan, do we need a Greener Transport Council and why did I sign up to be part of it? Well, as is inevitably the case, the TDP is an important start, but it is just a start. There are many issues which are left undiscussed or unresolved and everyone in the transport profession has a big role to play in making that accelerated delivery happen in practice. A plan is just a plan.

Of particular importance to me is the emphasis in the Greener Transport Council on making a whole system transition. The TDP is strikingly supply side and technology-led. Speaking at the Zemo Partnership conference last week, Bob Moran of the Department for Transport acknowledged this unapologetically. The scale of the supply transition is indeed huge. However, read the document and ask yourself “where are the people?” There is reference to sometimes quite radical demand reduction futures including lower overall traffic levels. But what will society look like in such a future? Who will be travelling less? What will they be travelling less for? How will that affect the industries which have built up around current car dependent growth patterns and how will they respond? There is much reference to greening the ‘last-mile’ of freight delivery but nothing about how the dash to same day or next day delivery is creating inefficient logistics patterns.

The focus on technologies also perpetuates the separation of technology and behaviour. Travel behaviours co-evolve with the technologies and infrastructures which are in place. If, for example, an infrastructure is developed which is built around shared access to cars in community hubs then we can anticipate that people will re-evaluate their relationship with the car. There is already good evidence on this from CoMoUK on car sharing and bike sharing. However, if an individualised model is pushed, where it is assumed that vehicle to grid connections enable people to access lower cost energy tariffs, then it might well embed further car dependence. The point here is not to fall in to an argument about the best technology but to ask what kind of zero emission mobility system are we trying to create? Is it the same congested and unsafe one we had before or something different? Without a vision for that then the accompanying tax changes, infrastructure investment, planning reforms and engagement with the public is difficult to plot. This requires local as well as national vision.

I run the DecarboN8 network which is focussing on place-based decarbonisation. By exploring the differences between places across the UK the differences in carbon start points, opportunities to decarbonise and other wider social issues to address in parallel all become clear. The TDP is one plan but it has to work very differently in different locations and there is much to be done to understand this (more of which at the forthcoming free international conference). DecarboN8 is also pioneering approaches to develop policy and innovations with and through communities, businesses and governments through an approach based on societal (rather than technology) readiness levels. This matters because the scale of change which is required to society is huge and this is another part of the Greener Transport Council’s work which is important to me – how do we make the debate on climate action with the public more transparent? Promising the continuation of current lifestyles, as the opening to the TDP does, risks seriously undermining the need for the seemingly radical policy change identified in the plan to be seen by the public as really necessary.

So there remain a whole range of questions about how the TDP is enacted, over spending and taxation, over technology and balance between strategies and funding and skills. What matters now is that we stop being the sector that cut emissions by 4 percent in 30 years and start being the sector that is cutting emissions by 4 percent a year (and then more). There is plenty to be getting on with and knowing there is more to decide and debate can no longer be an excuse for inaction. We need to have those debates in parallel with action now. I’m hopeful that the Greener Transport Council’s work can provide support to both a stronger plan and one which has more chance of being delivered.

About the Author

This post was written by Greg Marsden. Greg is Professor of Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds. Greg is also Chair of the Greener Transport Council.