Creating the Transport Decarbonisation Plan – Are you in?

by Greg Marsden

Thursday marked the long awaited launch of the first stage of the Department for Transport’s Decarbonisation Plan. It is perhaps not the most eye-catching news item in what is a pretty traumatic period for the UK but it does deserve the attention of everyone in the sector and, as events allow, the UK population.

The title, “Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge”, is deliberate. This is not the plan, but an invitation to shape the plan over the next 6 months. The document provides a very transparent view of the nature of the challenge; as shown in the size of the gap between the trajectory implied in the 2017 Green Growth Strategy (not as ambitious as it needed to be) and the current committed policies (of which there is an impressive list).

DfT's latest domestic GHG emissions based on current policies, compared to Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) targets and CCC Net Zero 'Further Ambition' and 'Speculative' scenarios

The science has a significant influence on the framing including:

“This is not optional; There is no plausible path to net zero without major transport emissions reductions; reductions that need to start being delivered soon.” (p58)

There is an acknowledgment that there will need to be a strategy which covers all technologies and all modes and, critically, which involves significant and early action – given the time it takes for technologies to penetrate the fleet. Some of these technologies do not even exist yet and form part of the call to arms for science and innovation.

From the perspective of the DecarboN8 Network, we are delighted to see an emphasis on ‘Place-Based’ decarbonisation, which forms one of the six strategic priorities set out in the document. The plan highlights variations in commute mode shares and levels of on-street parking (and therefore charge point access) in different communities. As the plan develops, it should also address the huge variations in carbon emissions between local authorities, their very different options for decarbonisation, and, their different pathways to zero carbon which will need to be worked out.

As a line in the sand on what we know about transport and carbon and what the existing policy commitments will and will not achieve, this document will stand the test of time. The big question, however, is what happens next? What does an ambitious pathway look like? What is the mix of measures that take us there?

The number of stakeholders is huge, the range of uncertainties significant and the policy choices difficult. Now is the time to make the case for a progressive, effective and ambitious trajectory that maps to the UK’s carbon budget as implied by the Paris Agreement (if events allow).

Some of the issues which stand out in the document for me include:

  • The language of providing easier choices to travel by walking, cycling and public transport. The same applies to better information on CO2 to inform travellers. We’ve been here before. The context of choice matters. The document talks about what we will improve, but not what will be restricted. If issues like pricing of public transport are left out, then the price signals do the choosing more clearly than any carbon calculator ever could. There is not a word on restricting car use.

  • There remains a chronic imbalance in spending on making things better for car drivers versus those travelling by lower or zero emission modes. £532m for three years of extension to the Plug-In Car Grant versus £350m for cycle infrastructure funds for example. I am not arguing to cut the Plug-In Car Grant – but rather that we need to be more ambitious than just increasing cycling from 1% to 2% of distance travelled, and we must fund that commitment properly. The £27bn spend on major roads schemes announced around the budget was not mentioned. For this decarbonisation plan to work it must be at the heart of all decisions in Whitehall – it must move from being a stand-alone statement to one which matters everywhere.

  • There are some parts of the transport system which are going to decarbonise very slowly. With all current commitments on LGVs, emissions may only be 17% lower by 2050. Maritime also has real challenges, as does aviation. If we cannot cut these emissions quickly enough then it will fall to the rest of the sector to compensate. Given the already colossal challenge of decarbonisation of car technology, what this really means is yet more emphasis on demand reduction. Demand reduction is not specifically addressed within the document, at least not the reductions of 20% and upwards which will require major national and local intervention and a plan to grow the economy differently – reductions which cannot be achieved by nudge. One thing we might salvage from the current Covid-19 crisis may just be the opportunity to change this debate and decide to rebuild differently.

  • Finally, I was disappointed to see that the carbon impacts of infrastructure were left to other sectors to consider, as they don’t neatly fit within the carbon accounting protocols for transport. Whilst EVs are lower carbon than petrol cars they are not zero emission and the materials and recycling processes they require are significant. Emissions in construction also matter. The DecarboN8 Network will be working with stakeholders across the North to show just how important it is to take integrated rather than siloed decisions about the total carbon impacts of transport.

I am sure there are many more issues to be debated. I will be doing my best to play a part in those discussions and working hard with our DecarboN8 partners to fill some of the research and implementation gaps. If you like what the DfT have put out, then please take this opportunity to say so – it has been a long road to get here. If you want to see more ambition or a different emphasis then jump up and down and get involved in the discussion. We will see you there!

Covid-19: Other mobilities are (im)possible

Monika Büscher, Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University

Other mobilities are possible. But will a systemic shock engender systemic change?

Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus) has shut down air travel and the global economy, and incited a mass-move online to work, meet, and socialise. When the catastrophe is over, will some of the lessons, values, and new practices stick? Early signs are not promising.

As the news is dominated by Covid-19, the climate, pollution, and environmental crises seem forgotten. Indeed, mobility systems ‘naturally’ seem deserving of billion Dollar rescue packages, even though they are causally implicated in the death of 7 million people from air pollution per year worldwide (WHO), 40,000 a year in the UK, and climate change that will impoverish, displace, and kill more than 240 million people by 2050, whilst incurring $520 billion losses (Worldbank). Might the viral mobilities of Covid-19 eclipse these other crises?

In our current media discourse they already do. The virus is feared in ways that mobilises instant, worldwide societal and economic transformation. In contrast, the threat of looming systemic collapse of vital planetary systems has inspired very little action. It is the multi-causal system-ness of the climate, pollution, and environmental crises that has stopped a mobilities transformation so far. That hasn’t changed.

empty city street

To change mobilities systems, more than disruption is needed.

Learning new ways of living, working, and socialising locally and online is possible and not enough. We also need deeper understanding of, and more mobilities research on: public understanding, reasoning and sense-making practices around system-ness and precarity, causality and responsibility, courage and creativity, social movements and mobile publics, collective and individual capacities for translating understanding to transformation.

For more reflections from other mobilities scholars, see the Critical Automobility Studies Lab.

For more reflections from the DecarboN8 team and to find out how you can contribute to the conversation subscribe to our Newsletter

Fuel Duty Freezes and Hard Working Families

DecarboN8 Director, Professor Greg Marsden, explains why the fuel duty freeze is counterproductive for both people and planet

Last week’s budget heralded a “record tenth year in a row” of a fuel duty freeze, which the Budget document suggests is part of “cutting the cost of living” and “helping hard-working people keep more of what they earn”. Tax doesn’t go up, people are better off, what’s your problem with that? Move on right?

As with any announcement, you need to peel back the spin to really think about who this is a benefit for and under what terms it might be heralded a benefit. There are five issues which sit underneath this which need unpicking if the debate on how we pay for travel is ever going to be socially progressive and contribute positively to climate change. These are:

  • It is a tax break which benefits those who drive the most and, therefore, the wealthiest in our society (who also pollute the most)
  • It widens the affordability gap between public transport and private car use at a time where we need more people to switch away from the car
  • It pushes more people into car ownership who, despite the fuel subsidy, cannot really afford to own a car (bear with me on this!)
  • It generates extra car traffic – taking us away from a discussion we absolutely have to have about how we pay for transport use in the future
  • It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you work hard

I take each of these in turn.

It benefits the well off the most

The chart below shows the average number of miles driven by car by each of the five income quintile groups in the UK (data from the 2018 National Travel Survey). It doesn’t require a degree in maths to spot the inequality here. The wealthiest income group drives just over three times as far as the least well-off group, meaning this tax break will benefit the wealthiest the most. The Treasury estimates the “average motorist” has saved £1200 cumulatively as a result of the ten years of fuel duty freeze – but this framing hides the fact that when you factor in how many miles are driven, then the highest income group has benefited around £1760 and the lowest £570.

chart showing miles driven by each income group

Just to put the figures in context, the cumulative £1200 benefit would fund three and half years of access to all public transport for the city of Vienna. It is a choice where we put our tax breaks and subsidy.

It widens the affordability gap to public transport

Household expenditure on fuel is around one-third of all motoring costs, the remainder being purchase, insurance, parking, servicing and repairs. In the decade 2008 to 2018, the Retail Price Index (a measure of how much things cost) has increased 31% in real terms. Overall motoring costs have increased by the same amount with fuel costs increasing by less (15%) but costs like insurance rising more quickly.

It is when you compare the price increases with public transport that the arguments for holding back fuel duty rises seem bizarre. Rail costs have increased by 49% and bus, coach and taxi by 66% over the decade to 2018, more than twice the rise in motoring costs. This is a result, in part, of deliberate government decisions to recover a greater percentage of the costs of running the railway from passengers by allowing large annual fare increases. The bottom line is that public transport is being made less affordable than driving.

It pushes more people into car ownership who cannot afford it

How can a policy which is holding down prices on fuel be bad for those who are hard up? The reason for this is that around five per cent of all households own a car despite not having enough money for items such as a washing machine, adequate heating or one week’s holiday away from home. This figure is 11% for households with four or more people (hard-working families perhaps?). This is referred to as forced car-ownership. More in-depth analysis of the reasons for this shows that people get access to a car to overcome the expense, limited service patterns and lack of early morning and evening provision of public transport. This is coupled with less secure employment and housing insecurity in the private rented sector to create conditions where a significant proportion of the population are forced to own a car to work around these wider failings in public service provision. It is certainly not a desirable choice to own a car at the expense of basics such as heating or phone access – such decisions are driven by necessity not luxury. This can be contrasted with Germany where only 5% of households with four or more people fall into the forced car ownership category. Again, the decision to provide tax breaks for fossil fuels rather than to fund public transport is a policy choice, and one which draws people into needing a car when they cannot afford one even with a fuel duty subsidy.

Forced car ownership – if you own a car and cannot afford three of these
1. to face unexpected expenses (of an amount equivalent to the monthly poverty line in the respondent’s country);
2. one week annual holiday away from home;
3. to pay for arrears (for mortgage or rent, utility bills or hire purchase installments);
4. a meal with meat, chicken or fish (or vegetarian equivalent) every second day;
5. to keep home adequately warm;
6. to have a washing machine;
7. to have a colour TV;
8. to have a telephone (fixed landline or mobile);

It generates extra traffic

There has never been a clear narrative about what fuel duty is for, even during the time of the fuel duty escalator in the 1990s. What policy arguments might have existed for using it as a tool to manage travel demand seemed to evaporate at the time of the Fuel Duty Protests and have yet to re-appear. What is irrefutable is that when prices rise, demand drops, and when prices fall, demand rises. Estimates vary but in the short run, for every 10% increase in fuel price distance travelled falls between 1% and 5% and vice versa. So, the policy of the past decade has been to stimulate a growth in road traffic which, in turn, fuels demand for more road infrastructure to tackle the even busier pinch points which result. All of this is contributing to the climate change problem and is one of the reasons why emissions from transport have flat-lined and are now the largest sector of the economy.

We have known since the oil price spikes of the 1970s that one way in which people respond to fuel price increases has been to buy more fuel-efficient cars. What has become clear over the past decade is that cheaper motoring costs, coupled with cheaper financing deals for new cars has flipped this on its head. Research has recently shown that sales of Sports Utility Vehicles have outstripped sales of Battery Electric Vehicles by 37 to 1 in 2018, almost quadrupling to 21% of all new car sales over the past decade.

Of course, fuel duty is a fairly limited policy tool. It is a one-size fits all tool which has to work in rural and urban areas. It is also increasingly subject to challenge given the ambition for all new cars to be electric by 2035. There will not be any fuel duty by 2035 and we currently just pay 20% VAT on domestic electricity. If no changes are made to how we pay for travel, the Department for Transport suggests that by 2050 traffic levels will have risen by 42% more than if we did not make switch to electric. Think of the additional demands for road construction and the pressure on our urban areas where expansion is not possible that this would bring! Is that a future we want? Given that we cannot muster the political will to deliver even a marginal increase in fuel duty, I am sceptical that we can find the will to address this urgently needed system wide transition.

Do hard-working families benefit from the fuel duty freeze?

Where to start on this one? Well, of course some do. But what about the households that don’t own a car? The ones facing annual price hikes for public transport? Around one in four UK households do not own a car. This is as high as 45% in London and as low as 15% in the South West. Perhaps the people in the South West all work harder than those in London? As I showed earlier, the highest income families will get three times as much benefit from the fuel duty freeze compared to the lowest earning families. Perhaps the rich work harder than the poor then? These comparisons are as ridiculous as the ‘hard-working families’ trope itself. If this is about lowering the cost of living for families who are struggling, then it is extremely poorly targeted.

In conclusion

As the terrible events surrounding the outbreak of the Coronavirus continue to unfold, it could seem trivial to debate one or two pence on the cost of a litre of fuel. However, when life begins to return to ‘normal’ the points raised above will not have gone away, and the climate emergency will still be here. It seems likely that oil prices will be depressed as the global economy faces a long recovery period so, what funds are available will best be targeted towards helping the public transport system recover and supporting the most vulnerable and hard-up to use it. Hopefully, this is the end of the road for fuel duty freezes.