We must make the case for a better life

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 11th March 2022 by Claire Haigh.

The latest IPCC report has been described as ‘an atlas of human suffering’. Climate impacts are worse than predicted.  Extreme weather events are accelerating. No region is safe. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.

The report’s publication last week would have been top of the international news agenda, had the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine not dominated media attention. However, the stranglehold that dependency on Russian gas holds over NATO member states only serves to underline the imperative that we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

We need a massive shift to clean technologies, but we must also reduce energy demand. The International Energy Agency (IEA) describes demand reduction as “the first fuel”.  Energy demand reduction supports the key goals of energy policy: security, affordability and sustainability.  However, policy is heavily skewed to technological solutions.

We are not currently on track

COP26 kept the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius (C) alive and has generated momentum for change, but there remains a stark gap.  Countries must come to COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh with more ambitious NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions).  Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must halve by 2030 to stay within 1.5C. After the plunge caused by lockdowns GHG have bounced back and are set to rise strongly this year.

The challenge for the world is to get on a sustainable consumption path fast.  A key principle must be equitable access to sustainable development with wealthier countries decarbonising more quickly.  A step change is needed in climate finance.  We also need a strong, predictable and rising carbon price. The failure to price carbon properly runs through every sector of the world economy and continues to support unsustainable levels of consumption.

Domestically, the pledge to reduce GHG emissions by 78% by 2035 puts the UK at the forefront of international ambition.  However, government has faced criticism for failing to develop plans to match targets.  Transport is the biggest polluting sector of the UK economy, and a technology led approach has delivered little progress since 1990.  The key conclusion of our Manifesto for Decarbonising Transport was that urgent attention must now be given to traffic reduction.

There is an emerging consensus that achieving our 2030 net zero target for transport will require a reduction in car kms of around a quarter.  Green Alliance concludes that the government’s anticipated roll-out of EVs will be insufficient to keep us on the ‘balanced pathway’ to its net zero target, and that a reduction in car kms of 20-27% by 2030 will be needed. The Major of London has pledged 27% reduction in car kms by 2030. The Scottish Government has pledged a 20% reduction.

The devolved administrations are demonstrating leadership on the issue of demand reduction, but the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) continues an approach that has meant people have driven more and in larger vehicles as engines have become more efficient.  Whilst TDP recognises the need for modal switch, the delivery of behaviour change has been delegated to local authorities.  A toolkit has been promised but much greater resource and political leadership will be needed.

The timeframe has significantly narrowed our options.  60% of fuel supply and half of surface transport decarbonisation required by 2050 needs to have happened in this decade if we are to remain on track for the net zero target.  The only solutions open to us over this timescale have to include reducing the need for travel.

We need a whole systems transition

The decarbonisation of transport requires changes in the wider economy.  We need a whole-systems approach that reflects the shift to digital connectivity, and the integration of transport with land-use planning, energy and green finance. The challenge in delivering this is how to overcome the silos of government nationally and locally.  The £27.4 billion road investment programme undermines the goal of achieving net zero.  There was little reference to net zero in Levelling Up the United Kingdom.

Technical solutions will be insufficient to get us to net zero.  Vehicle efficiency gains have been eroded by the trend to larger vehicles and rising demand for car and van travel. We must reduce energy demand and avoid rebound effects.  Moreover, in lowering the cost of motoring, electrification will increase car use and congestion and make mode shift harder to deliver. If we electrify the fleet without sorting out how to transition away from fuel duty, road traffic could increase by an additional 30%.

The pricing of different transport modes should properly reflect external costs. The benefits to the public of any future change in how we pay for road use should be framed in terms of reducing carbon and congestion, cleaner air and more equitable access. Road pricing has received support from the Transport Select Committee.  The final report following its inquiry into Zero Emissions Vehicles and Road Pricing highlights that if it fails to act the Treasury will be left with a £35 billion black hole as receipts from fuel duty and VED disappear.

The transition to net zero must be rooted in fairness, not only because the poorest in our society are least responsible for the climate crisis and invariably the worst affected, but because unless action is rooted in social and economic justice it won’t succeed politically.  Environmental taxes must ensure a fair distribution of cost and incentives, with mitigation measures where necessary to protect poorer households. Perceived tensions between achieving net zero and the levelling up agenda must not be used as an excuse for any backsliding on decarbonisation.

Greater devolution would accelerate the delivery of UK wide net zero targets, as evidenced by the net zero strategies of the devolved administrations.  Coordination of different aspects of policy is easier at a regional or local level.  Levelling Up the United Kingdom promises a “devolution revolution” but inviting local authorities to bid for different pots of money militates against the joined up strategic thinking and planning needed.  We need to reform funding and governance so that local leaders can plan for housing, jobs and transport on an integrated long-term basis with net zero embedded at the heart of decision making.

Building a new framework

Since the 1950s a car-based consumer culture has ensured that our transport system has been built on the assumption that the private car is the predominant mode of transport.  This assumption continues to be reflected in transport budgets and planning decisions.  Funding for road building vastly exceeds funding for sustainable transport. Transport for New Homes regularly puts a spotlight on new housing developments that lock in car dependency.

The decarbonisation of transport will require a decisive shift away from our car-based culture.  Unfortunately, current indicators point in precisely the opposite direction by way of a car-led recovery from Covid.  Congestion exceeds pre-pandemic levels in many areas as people continue to avoid public transport.  Public transport is struggling to sustain even 60-80% of 2019 patronage levels, and without additional government Covid support grants it was estimated that 30% of bus services would have been lost.

We must ensure that we learn the right lessons from the pandemic.  One legacy must be an increased focus on risk and resilience in appraisal and investment decisions.  We won’t succeed if we persist with the illusion that we can green business as usual.  It is time to question some fundamental assumptions about our continuing fixation on GDP growth.  Prioritising growth according to its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals would be a good place to start.

A cleaner, fairer, safer future

At a time of rising geopolitical uncertainty, volatility in energy markets, insecurity of supplies and escalating fuel and gas prices, it becomes more critical than ever to design policies in a way that avoids unintended consequences and ensures a fair and just transition to net zero. We can no longer take for granted the strong cross-party consensus in the UK which had seemed unshakeable until the recent emergence of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group.

This will be a battle for hearts and minds.  What does life beyond fossil fuels look like?  We must make the case for a better life, with cleaner air, more equitable access and convenient transport.   No one wants their children’s lungs to be damaged by air pollution, for the continuing corrosive impact of car dependency on society, and for hours of our lives and productivity to be lost in congestion.  How can we begin to re-imagine our daily lives?

Energy security is an increasingly critical issue.  The IEA has been urging people to turn down their thermostats.  However, there is also a growing body of opinion, including from the respected Blair Institute, that there may need to be some short-term trade-offs in terms of decarbonisation, as we shore up our energy security at home and reduce our (especially EU) reliance on imports of Russian gas.

We must avoid false choices.  We must protect our energy security whilst accelerating the transition to net zero and ensuring that low-income groups are not penalised.

This article by Claire Haigh was published on 11 March 2022 by Passenger Transport magazine


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).