Thanks to the pandemic and extended periods of lockdown measures, 2020 saw a 19 per cent decline in greenhouse gas emissions from transport. Despite this, transport is still the biggest contributor to domestic emissions in the UK.
With the final Covid-related restrictions due to end this week, it's likely we will see this decline reverse, especially as we already know that despite many people continuing to work partially or totally from home, road traffic is back to - or exceeding - pre-pandemic levels thanks to a shift away from public transport to private cars.
This is the opposite of what is needed. The Climate Change Committee has made it clear that a shift to electric vehicles alone is not enough to meet net zero; we must also reduce overall traffic by reducing the need for some journeys and using low-carbon modes for those we need to make. There are now a number of studies demonstrating the amount of traffic reduction needed by 2030 - between 20 and 27 per cent depending on the speed of EV uptake - to meet net zero.
Whilst the UK was the first major economy in the world to commit in law to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, transport is a devolved matter and level of ambition, and actions, varies by individual nation.
The UK government’s Department for Transport (DfT) is responsible for transport policies in England and plans to decarbonise transport rely heavily on vehicle electrification. The government brought forward the end date for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans to 2030 and is introducing a mandate on vehicle manufacturers requiring a certain percentage of annual sales of new cars to be zero emission from 2024 .
The DfT does recognise the need for modal shift and aims to make walking, cycling and public transport 'the natural first choice'. It has launched major strategies to reform provision for active travel, buses and rail. Yet, while there is a target for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030, ministers have said they have no intention of telling people that they should drive less or indicating what share of journeys should be made by sustainable modes. The Treasury is also silent on road pricing – a central tool for managing demand – despite recognising the need to reform vehicle taxation in light of the transition to zero emission vehicles.
Similarly, the government has failed to explicitly recognise the link between expanding roads capacity and the emissions generated from the additional traffic they encourage. The DfT was steered by legal action to start a review of the national policy statement for national networks, the strategic planning policy for major road and rail schemes which was written in 2014, so that it aligns with the government’s net zero commitments. The review is expected to take until Spring 2023 and the DfT will also need to update its traffic forecasts last published in 2018. Yet, in the meantime the government has not paused its existing road building plans and National Highways is ploughing ahead with developing a strategy for the next roads investment period between 2025 and 2030.
By contract, the Welsh government has explicitly recognised the need for mode shift. Its Net Zero strategy set a target to reduce car miles per person by ten per cent by 2030 compared to now, and for the proportion of trips by sustainable transport modes to increase from an estimated 32 per cent now to 39 per cent by 2030, and 45 per cent by 2040. This is to be achieved through a combination of improvements to active travel and public transport provision and commitments towards a fair system of road pricing. Progressive planning policies also require authorities to refuse planning permission for car-dependent projects.
In addition, the Welsh government has started a process to review its road investment policies to ensure that any actions do not increase carbon emissions from operating, maintaining and improving the road network. It has also committed to reallocation of existing road space to achieve a shift to sustainable forms of transport. All existing road investment plans were put on hold in September 2021 and a Roads Review Panel was tasked with making recommendations to ministers on which schemes should progress, be modified or cancelled in line with its commitment to net zero.
Scotland has gone one better with an even more ambitious net zero target of 2045 and a target to reduce car kilometres travelled by a fifth by 2030. This will be done through a combination of policies to reduce the need to travel, shift to greener modes and share journeys. Actions to achieve this include:
- Ensuring essential services and facilities are within easy reach
- Increasing investment in active travel
- Introducing low emission zones in several cities
- Developing subway systems in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen
- Commissioning a review of public transport fares
- Working with UK government towards reforms of vehicle taxation
- Commitment to develop equitable ways to discourage car use by 2025.
Unlike Wales, the Scottish government has not suspended roads investment and is going ahead with a number of road building and expansion schemes, although there is also an emphasis on maintenance and improvements to existing roads.
The Way Forward
The climate emergency is the biggest environmental threat we face right now and it will require action from all of us to address it. Our governments need to be frank with us that our travel habits will need to change and just replacing all existing vehicles with electric ones will not be enough. Westminster should emulate some the excellent leadership shown in Wales and Scotland with national and local interim targets for carbon reduction that meet the net zero pathway to 2030 and 2050, as well as credible policies to achieve this, and we should be increasing capacity on public transport, not roads, and improving price parity with private cars.