Text Size

Current Size: 100%

Getting transport's carbon budget back on track

Former campaigner's picture
roadside SOS phone

The UK Committee on Climate Change reports that transport CO2 emissions continue to grow. How can we get the sector back on track?

The latest UK Committee on Climate Change progress report is out – and its findings could not be starker.

Transport is now the largest-emitting sector of the UK economy accounting for 28 per cent of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2017.

As a result, the UK is not on course to meet the fourth (2023-2027) or fifth (2028-2032) carbon budgets. As the UK CCC report warns, “nor will it be on course unless risks to the delivery of existing policies are reduced significantly and until Government brings forward effective new policies to deliver commitments beyond the achievements in electricity generation and waste.”

We’ve seen a series of policy decisions that take transport in the wrong direction. There’s the halting of rail electrification, and the delays to making electric cars the norm; the freezing of motoring fuel duty, while public transport fares continue to rise; the slashing of programmes like the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, while billions of pounds are allocated for building new roads; and the carbon-budget busting decision to expand Heathrow.

The recent report, Environmental quality, climate change and transport innovation, produced by think tank Tracks, argues that as most CO2 emissions from transport are from urban areas, the Government should focus its policies on influencing the way we use transport in our towns and cities by providing good alternatives to the car in order to reduce the volume of traffic on our roads, thereby reducing overall emissions. The recent Commission on Travel Demand shows that demand for road travel is falling, giving opportunities to reduce car travel rather than building roads to cater for increases.

The UK CCC report agrees, saying “Opportunities to reduce demand for travel must be exploited.  Demand reduction is generally highly cost-effective and has many co-benefits.  Cities and towns can take the lead in encouraging sustainable travel choices, including walking, cycling and public transport, which can improve congestion, air quality and public health.”

So what policy steps should Government take?

  1. Electric vehicles (EVs) are part of the solution, but their take-up is pitifully slow. Bring forward the end of new petrol and diesel van sales from 2040 to 2030. This would help kick start conversion to EVs, particularly from fleet buyers, and boost the UK manufacturing sector. Also allow e-bikes to get zero emission vehicle grants
  2. Use the planning system to provide off-street EV charging points and ensure that on-street provision does not take space from more sustainable modes – protect pavements, cycle routes and bus lanes, and put charging points within existing parking bays instead
  3. Switch policy toward demand management. Allow, in fact encourage, local authorities to introduce charging clean air zones for urban centres and encourage use of existing policies like Workplace Parking Levies. These will cut unnecessary vehicle miles, tackle air pollution too, and provide a funding stream for low carbon transport choices
  4. Seize the opportunity to transform the quality of our urban environment, with comprehensive investment in safe, dedicated walking and cycling facilities, supported by green infrastructure, such as street trees, green walls and natural drainage systems
  5. Introduce road pricing, initially on the strategic road network. As revenue from conventional fuel taxes falls, a new approach will be needed to fund future road maintenance
  6. Support modern, low carbon public transport. Restore the rail electrification programme, with bimodal trains for secondary routes, fund new/reopened rail lines and stations and new trams, and commit funding for greener buses through a national Bus and Coach Investment Strategy
  7. Move more freight from HGVs onto rail. Rail freight produces 76 per cent less CO2 than the equivalent HGV journey, but requires Government action to promote multi-modal interchanges (i.e. stations for freight) and to bring rail pricing in line with the cost of road travel for equivalent trips
  8. Don’t expand Heathrow. Aviation growth at Heathrow will inevitably bust our carbon budget. There’s no viable decarbonised fuel for planes and offsetting proposals simply won’t deliver the carbon savings needed, while the additional traffic to the airport will cause more harm
  9. Use the planning system proactively to deliver a low carbon future. Locate homes and jobs near transport hubs, require and apply travel plans for big destinations, and allow local authorities to set and apply caps on parking provision
  10. Stop major road building. Building new roads simply generates more traffic. Apply a carbon cap to the Road Investment Strategy and a carbon veto to individual schemes unless they can demonstrate carbon neutrality. Invest instead in measures to mitigate CO2 emissions through a programme of green retrofit and better integration with and more funding for local transport.


The next year is crucial. The Government’s spending review due this autumn will be a key test of whether the message has been heard and understood.