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Roads to Nowhere

Better transport is vital in tackling climate change. You'd never know.

Andrew Allen's picture

Transport is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. But successive governments have failed to make inroads into the sector's carbon emissions. Instead of assuming electric cars can solve the problem, Government needs to rediscover modal shift and reducing the need to travel.

On 15 October, the Government quietly published their response to the latest progress report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC). As well as detailing recent progress in tackling carbon emissions, the document sets Government's response to CCC's recommendations for how the UK can meet its legally binding target on reducing emissions.

Transport matters in this. Nearly a quarter of UK domestic emissions come from the sector, with roads creating the lion's share. Compared with other sectors of the economy, transport has seen slow progress in tackling emissions. They are down only 0.2 percent for 2013, and by only 3 percent since 1990.

To address this, the CCC has made recommendations including tougher targets for emissions from conventional new cars and measures to encourage electric cars and other low emission vehicles. The Department for Transport can point to progress in these areas.

What is missing are country-wide initiatives to get people out of their cars in the first place. Encouraging modal shift warrants a mention in the sections on Northern Ireland and Scotland, but barely at all in the rest of the document. The laudable Local Sustainable Transport Fund gets a mention, but it does not add up to a national programme of investment of the type which is needed.

Instead, we have an approach seemingly based on mitigating the Government's £24bn roads programme. This will wed people to their cars, worsen pollution and congestion, and trash the environment.

Getting serious on transport emissions needs Goverment to take a much clearer, more joined up approach. We need investment in clean, extensive bus networks, planning policies that require new and existing development be properly connected to public transport networks, infrastructure to support walking and cycling and even faster progress with replacing aging and dirty diesel trains with electric rolling stock that emits nearly a third less carbon.

Examples of good projects are going on, but they do not add up to a national programme and thus do not warrant a mention in the Government's plans. Crucially, many offer a double dividend and are being pursued for important reasons other than reducing carbon, for example tackling air pollution or offering faster, higher capacity public transport links. When you combine these benefits, you get a true picture of the benefits that come from investment in sustainable transport.

Instead of concentrating its energies on electric cars (important though these will be), Government needs to put building a truly sustainable transport network at the heart of plans to reduce carbon emissions.