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Low-carbon transport strategy – a briefing from Campaign for Better Transport

15 July 2009
In the next week or so, the Government will publish a strategy to reduce carbon emissions from transport. This briefing sets out the context, what’s likely to be in it and likely reactions.


  • The Government will be publishing a low-carbon transport strategy in the next week or so
  • The strategy is likely to focus on technological solutions – low emission cars, but also vans, trucks, buses and planes. However, introducing low-carbon vehicles will take time to deliver and investment in technology is made more difficult at a time of economic uncertainty.
  • The Government is fighting shy of measures to affect people’s travel, even though behaviour change measures can have an effect now, and have been proved to be effective in the Government’s own “sustainable travel towns” schemes.
  • The strategy will need to commit to funding low-carbon transport projects, rather than the £4bn of roads proposed by local authorities in the English region. We and others have proposed a carbon reduction fund to bring forward and encourage low-carbon transport schemes
  • The strategy will need to make low-carbon transport like rail cheaper than high carbon transport like flying – at present domestic aviation doesn’t pay any fuel duty, rail ticket prices are regulated to rise above inflation, and road pricing is off the agenda completely
  • The transport strategy will need to link up with other policies especially planning - the rise in demand for transport is partly driven by the way that our communities have been planned in the last few decades with car dependent housing and jobs.




Transport contributes a quarter of UK carbon emissions, and this has been growing in absolute and percentage terms, especially with increased aviation and road traffic. In terms of tackling climate change and reducing greenhouse gases, transport is therefore a key target.

Transport does however have to fight its corner against other sectors – energy, business, agriculture etc – within overall “carbon budgets” and next week’s “Low-carbon Transport Strategy” will be launched as part of the Government’s overall climate and energy strategy [1]. There is also an international context. The EU has already agreed targets and a package of measures (including regulating emissions from new cars) to tackle climate change and energy; some of this, and the UK strategy, will depend on the outcomes of the international summit on climate change in Copenhagen in December.  It is clear that transport must play its part in cutting emissions and is crucial to meeting these targets.


A low-carbon strategy can’t rely just on new technology

The strategy will emphasise the role of green technology in cutting carbon: Lord Adonis has already said in his “transport manifesto” speech that action on climate change can’t be based on “deprivation”, it has to be a mixture of the “idealistic and the hard-headed”. So it seems likely that the strategy will play down any need for change in transport other than through making the vehicles and fuels greener. We believe much of the strategy will restate previous announcements on funding for low-carbon/electric vehicles and buses, for example.

A technology-based strategy is challenging, especially now. The European regulations will govern carbon emissions from new cars, but for this to have any impact it depends on people buying new cars and scrapping old ones, which in the recession is not happening much, even with the scrappage scheme. Officials say that even with very conservative assumptions on new cars, transport emissions will still fall, but this will be disputed.

Technology-led initiatives we expect to see in the low-carbon strategy


  • Vans: a fast growing source of transport emissions. The Government is keen on promoting lower carbon vans through new EU regulations and differential taxes. Tax announcements will await the Budget, but the strategy may signal moves to promote low-carbon vans and for electric van fleets in cities
  • Rail electrification: the Government manifesto "Building Britain’s Future" promised a strategy on this shortly. Rail is already low carbon (one study for Eurostar shows that the carbon emissions from a train trip from London to Paris is one-tenth of the aviation emissions) but electrification would make it greener, and Lord Adonis, a noted rail enthusiast, is very keen. The announcement may be at least for the Great Western route from London to Bristol and Cardiff, with other lines to follow; it would be financed by Network Rail borrowing and by savings in operating costs
  • Aviation and shipping: the strategy will restate Government support for the third runway at Heathrow. It will also push for greener plane technologies and greener fuels. International aviation and shipping are shaping up to be a battleground at the Copenhagen summit, both in getting their emissions regulated properly and included in the global deal and also using taxes on them to fund the deal
  • Buses: the Government has already announced funding for some low-carbon buses, which could be given to councils as well as bus operators. The strategy may include further incentives for operators to cut emissions
  • Large lorries: heavy goods vehicles are the source of significant carbon emissions (a study sponsored by Campaign for Better Transport suggested that the 500,000 bigger lorries could account for almost a quarter of transport emissions) and there could be measures to start to regulate emission standards and to manage fleets and driving styles better 

Behaviour-led initiatives we hope to see in the low-carbon strategy


As noted already, Ministers are not keen on trying to “change behaviour” of drivers and travellers, because they take the message from fuel protests and on road pricing that this is unpopular. However, the strategy may include some measures heading in this direction:


  • Eco-driving: support for more training especially for business and fleet drivers, to help people cut emissions and save energy and money
  • Cycling: new money has been found for cycling initiatives, including most recently cycle parking at/access to rail stations
  • Travel plans and car sharing: support for employers promoting alternatives to car commuting and business travel. Government figures show that around 90% of car commuting and business travel is single-occupancy, so support for car sharing and broader “travel plans” for employers, and help for them in benchmarking the carbon emissions from employee travel, may be restated
  • Support for local councils: to reduce carbon emissions from transport. The Government is already funding three “sustainable travel town” schemes, in Darlington, Worcester and Peterborough, and the evidence is that there has been a drop in car travel in those towns and big increases in bus use and cycling. The Government recently announced a “sustainable travel city” fund to take this forward in bigger towns and cities. However, it appears that councils won’t be forced to contribute to Government carbon targets.

Cross-departmental targets for cutting emissions


All this is likely to be framed within a target for cutting emissions from transport, but this target will be shared with other Government departments. For example, the Department of Health may be expected to take ownership of the proportion of journeys to hospitals and GPs and come up with a strategy for tackling these (a joint DfT/DH “Active Travel Strategy” was trailed in the Building Britain’s Future document). It’s unclear how far this sharing will be explicit or how far other departments like Business, Innovation and Skills have adopted this (if they did, it might require them to consider the transport/carbon impacts of closing rural post offices, for instance).

A low-carbon transport policy must address large policy issues


  • Transport investment: roads and runways or a carbon reduction fund?  The Department for Transport is still committed to investment in airport expansion and big road schemes (work has just started on widening the M25, for instance). Any progress from the strategy on greening vehicles and fuels will be undermined by Government transport spending. Specifically, Ministers are about to announce decisions on regional transport priorities for England following “Regional Funding Advice”. This advice proposed a lot of big road schemes totalling £4bn over the next five years or so, and downplayed public transport and other sustainable transport projects. If Ministers follow this advice they will be locking in spending on traffic generation and car dependence rather than cutting carbon. By contrast, we and others have proposed a “carbon reduction fund” for transport and there has been a lot of public and parliamentary support for this; we want to see money previously committed to congestion charging schemes allocated to low-carbon transport initiatives. The strategy will be judged on whether it funds such initiatives and invests in low-carbon rather than high-carbon transport projects
  • Pricing: rail fares up and cheap air fares to continue? The strategy must address the prices people pay for transport. At present aviation fuel is untaxed and there are cheap air fares, while statistically motoring costs have been falling and the Government has ruled out road pricing. By contrast, public transport fares have risen in real terms and the Government’s rail fares policy is allow them to rise by 1% above RPI per year, and let train operators raise other fares by more. We’ve argued that this policy runs against carbon reduction and that if fuel used on domestic flights were taxed the money could be used to cut rail fares rather than let them increase. Funding for buses also needs to be directed to cutting fares rather than letting them increase, for social as well as carbon-reduction reasons
  • Over-reliance on technology? The strategy relies heavily on greening vehicles (cars, planes etc) and fuels rather than tackling how they are used. This raises lots of questions including whether it’s realistic to plan for an electric car future (even more power stations needed) and also what the cost will be to drivers. In the shorter term, there’s a danger of a “rebound effect”; if cars use less fuel, they are cheaper to run so people drive further or trade up to gas guzzlers, cancelling out the savings from fuel economy
  • Coherent links with other policies? Transport is part of other decisions, especially planning and regeneration. In the past, housing and business parks have been built next to motorways, away from any public transport and with no local services, making it impossible for people to get anywhere except by driving. The Government has started to talk about joining up transport and planning (as most other European countries do), but the strategy will need to address this.

Ultimately, the strategy will be judged on what DfT and the Government is doing and spending on transport overall, not just on specific environmental measures in the strategy


We have campaigned for a carbon-reduction strategy for transport and it was at a Campaign for Better Transport fringe meeting at the 2007 Labour Party conference that the then Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly announced that there would be one. For all our criticisms of this strategy, we will be supportive of there being one, and of its being central to transport policy. There is a danger that the strategy is pigeon-holed as an “environment” document, and an attack from some motoring groups will be that, whatever might have been the case before the recession, the country and individuals can’t now afford measures that will cut carbon from transport. This misses the point – UK transport is at present 95% oil-based. As we have seen, this makes us vulnerable to speculation and supply shocks and longer term shortages (“peak oil” etc). Cutting carbon from transport is therefore an economic, not just an environmental issue. The strategy is going to be a step on that road – we will defend it, even though we will want it strengthened.

Note to Editors

[1] These budgets come from the Climate Change Act, passed last year with all-party support, which requires the Government to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050, with five-year carbon budgets setting targets for reduction up to then (this was to prevent Governments avoiding taking action). An independent Committee on Climate Change is overseeing this process; last year it made recommendations for the first three carbon budget periods up to 2022. The Government responded in April by setting a general outline budget, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2022: the announcements next week will break this down and allocate the budgets to different sectors and Government departments. Most attention is likely to go on energy issues – renewable energy, power station emissions etc – and there will also be a “low-carbon industrial strategy” from Lord Mandelson’s department.