Decarbonisation Island Discs: a playlist critique of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan

by Greg Marsden

I was really pleased to see the Transport Decarbonisation Plan released on Wednesday 14th July. In 2008 the UK government set out an 80% commitment to CO2 reduction with no plan for transport. The result – no change in emissions. There are of course shortcomings and key questions which are unresolved (how could there not have been, given the scale and diversity of the plan?), but the UK is much better off for having this plan than not having it.

A plan though is just a start. What matters is how we use the plan, how we change the plan over time (and how quickly) and whether or not the tough choices which will define how good or bad our decarbonisation pathway is are taken.

So here’s my review of the big issues for surface transport. There has been a lot of great commentary out there already – so I thought I would try something different. I bring you “My playlist critique of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan”.

It’s Not Enough – Starship

I was really pleased to see the DfT publish all of its carbon projections with uncertainties associated. I was, however, infuriated that none of the data was published alongside the plan and that savings were published relative to what is inevitably a fairly arbitrary baseline. Still, a good printer and some old fashioned interpolation gets me to the following conclusion: The plan is not ambitious enough in its current form.

If we compare the cumulative emissions from 2020 to 2050 in the CCC’s balanced net zero pathway with the plan then the worst case scenario is a 640MtC (47%) overshoot and the central case a 242MtC (18%) overshoot. However, the lowest emissions strategy brings emissions down 181MtC lower (13%) than the CCC scenario. This though appears to be entirely down to a massive drop in car travel post pandemic which does not bounce back. To hear more about this we shift to David Gray.

Cake and Eat it – David Gray

The plan is quite an extraordinary mix of ideas about future travel demand. The Foreword begins with Grant Shapps stating that “It’s not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing things differently. We will still fly on holiday, but in more efficient aircraft, using sustainable fuel. We will still drive on improved roads, but increasingly in zero emission cars.”

Elsewhere in the document however, there is clear support for lower traffic in urban areas and perhaps everywhere, following on from Covid adaptations. That is amazingly radical for a DfT publication, right? In other places in the plan additional demand from cheaper travel in electric or automated cars appears. This ignores what we already know: technology change on its own is not enough. The trajectories show that radical demand reduction is the only pathway that matches the CCC. We cannot have our cake and eat it – locking in demand reduction must start now.

Are Friends Electric? – Tubeway Army

The plan continues to push on with ambitious plans for electrification, including the headline grabbing consultation on phase out of HGVs. This is all essential. To be zero emission we need to use zero emission vehicles and a strong regulatory push is to be welcomed. There is one intriguing mention of light electromobility and this seems to me a more sustainable and earlier win which would transform many of the 96% of trips which are under 35 miles in length.

What we need to guard against is the idea that this solves the problem and that what we need to do is replace today’s vehicles like-for-like with EVs. The plan suggests that by 2035 46% of cars on the road will be zero emission. It acknowledges that these are not really zero emission until the grid is decarbonised and that EV cars are not safer, less congesting or space hungry than petrol ones.

Someone Else’s Problem – We Were Promised Jetpacks

The discussion on grid decarbonisation is just one example of how much of the decarbonisation of transport is actually being counted in someone else’s budget line. We still do not have a zero emission vehicle in use anywhere in the UK. The report refers to vehicle manufacturing and infrastructure emissions without offering any view on the scale of the issue. I think there is a huge danger of a dishonest decarbonisation of transport happening.

Of course, boundaries exist between government departments and we can’t expect everything to be in one plan – but there was little to provide comfort that everything is in-step. The plan should provide a clear overview of those connections and the scale of carbon implied by them. The reference to National Planning Policy Framework is another stark reminder of a critical cross-governmental reform which, at least on the recent evidence of its proposed planning reform, comes out of a department with seemingly little idea of its key role in the decarbonisation of transport.

Highway to Hell – ACDC

The plan attempts to defend the £27bn RIS2 programme for Highways England. Of course, the duality of demand futures which are stabilised or lower than today makes this an untenable position. However, on this critics should be realistic, the government did not want the cancellation of RIS2 to be the headline.

Instead, what we have is a review of the National Networks National Policy Statement. This is important. It will, if the necessity of demand reduction follows through, probably lead first to the suspension of schemes in development and then a cancellation of the programme. This can’t be left to chance, but feels like a slow move in the right direction.

Drive my car – Beatles

It was great to see a higher profile for car sharing – both of assets and in-use. This was also true for non-car modes including e-bikes. There is a desire to see greater car occupancy, which I have been pushing for.

The Commute Zero programme has real potential – although we have to lift our eyes beyond the commute, which is only around a fifth of all car miles travelled. The details of what will support this shift are still thin on the ground and there is no vision for what the mix of ownership (my car) and usership (a car) could be – so there is a risk of window dressing.

However, let’s take this at face value and really see what sharing can deliver. It can, in theory, deliver a lot very quickly.

Pricetag – Jessie J

The plan recognises one of the key fault lines in most of the decarbonisation strategies I see. The strategies set out what must happen to meet our pathway – more public transport use, less driving. The reality is underpinned by an anticipated fall in motoring costs and rises in public transport costs. Unless the economics of moving about has radically changed these two positions can’t both be true. The plan talks about “gradually” addressing the gap. It also states that “we will need to ensure that the tax system encourages the uptake of EVs and that the revenue from motoring taxes keeps pace with this change”.

This is a DfT publication so we shouldn’t have expected a major tax reform announcement. However, a change in the system cannot be the magical ‘decade away’, we don’t have a decade of spare carbon. What happens next here is crucial.

Money – Pink Floyd

There is no new money. The DfT has done really well to secure £2bn for cycling and walking and £3bn for Bus Back Better, £4.8bn for levelling up, £4.2bn for city region deals and £2.8bn for charging and supply chain development. The chances of there being lots more money in the face of the public sector deficit seem slim.

An important fact missing from the recent stream of announcements of new competition funds is that the core grant spending for local authorities fell in real terms from about £6bn to around £3bn per annum (2019 prices) between 1992 and 2019. So the extra funding might take us back to 1992 spend perhaps (if other funds are maintained) – but was that transformative then? Will it be now? It suggests to me that we have to think much more about reallocation of spend – we cannot afford to decarbonise a car growth future. And I haven’t even touched on revenue spending and the massive capacity gap in local authorities to deliver this scale of change…

Anytown – Everything but the Girl

“Radical change will come from empowering and supporting local leaders…” states the plan. Local Transport Plans are back in vogue and local authorities will be required to set targets. There is talk of funding being pooled for local authorities to use to best effect for decarbonisation, although whilst assessment guidance is being revisited it is far from clear that this is to allow a more hands off approach.

The lack of a clear budgetary framework across scales urgently needs addressing – there is a hotchpotch of ambition at a local scale (far higher, lower or absent). How will funding allocations be adjusted to match ambition and need? If this is not clear then we will end up with those who are already doing this, and who have the capacity to take it on, dominating. We have to decarbonise everywhere.

From a DecarboN8 perspective we welcomed a theme of place-based planning but saw little in the analysis that recognised the very different kinds of places that the transition is going to have to work in beyond a bit of urban versus rural comparison. There is still work to be done with DfT and local authorities to make sure the toolkit which is promised, it should aim to add not duplicate the large amount of guidance on options already out there.

No One – Alicia Keys

I chose this track because, try as I did, I couldn’t find people in the plan. The plan is written by a Department organised modally with a focus on the decarbonisation of the supply side technologies which sit in each silo. Whilst there is some joining up of thinking across supply side issues (e.g. hydrogen) people are nowhere. Of course, people make up demand and people use buses and cycle. However, where is the analysis of travel by income groups or by activity type?

What is really meant by demand reduction is that those who travel most will travel less. What is really meant by mode shift is those who drive most will shift most. Commute Zero takes us forward in that it tackles a journey purpose – but what about other parts of the mix?

On freight, for example, the last-mile will be decarbonised but there is no suggestion that unsustainable same or next day delivery patterns will be tackled. The failure to understand the social aspect of the transition and its relationship to technology will be a major problem to the efficacy and acceptability of the solutions that are brought forward. We strongly advocate for the assessment of the societal readiness of interventions rather than just technological readiness.

What Now? Rhianna

It is good to have the plan. There are many key issues to be addressed en-route which I touch on above. The plan needs to be interpreted and re-interpreted. The DfT needs to be challenged further and pushed to make it real and make change more rapid. What matters now is how much it can be made to deliver in the next three years before the review for the next one begins.

Enjoy the whole ‘Decarbonisation Island Discs’ playlist on Youtube