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

Coronavirus and the Climate Emergency

by Richard Walker

When I joined the DecarboN8 Network team at ITS on a secondment from the Department for Transport just four short weeks ago, I did not expect to be writing a blog to introduce myself in circumstances of a public health emergency that will change the world drastically. I was expecting to be writing about making 2020 a year of bringing the climate emergency to the top of the political agenda, building up towards meaningful global action on transport decarbonisation at the 26th UN climate summit (COP-26) in Glasgow in November. In this moment though it feels more important to write about coronavirus and what it might mean for the climate emergency.

But as my kids’ ‘LOTRmemes’ Reddit feed tells me, we do not get to decide what our time is, all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

A threat growing exponentially gives us little time to adjust to the enormity of what we are facing. This might be a virus; or as the Australians can teach us, a bush fire; or, as the Bahamians could teach us (if only we asked them), a monstrous hurricane. We must try our best to avoid being overwhelmed. First, we need to survive. Then, if we survive, we can ask, how can we make some good come out of this disaster?

DecarboN8 launched in November, and has already built a useful network of researchers, practitioners and active citizens to discuss, assemble evidence and take action on transport decarbonisation. I believe we can already say that its three year timespan will now be years defined by coronavirus and the social, economic and political fallout from it. We must adjust and respond; and make ourselves as useful as possible. What we can do is not yet clear, but those of us locked down at home will have time to think about the question, and we can use this network as a forum to discuss it.

Here is my first contribution to such a conversation, which I hope will involve many and diverse voices from across the DecarboN8 Network. It is a blog on some of the emergencies I have seen, and how they have interacted with the question of transport decarbonisation. I stress that this is a personal account; and represents my own view and not that of my employers.

TL;DR: we have known for 30 years that there is nothing more important than addressing carbon emissions, but again and again emergencies have come along that have, understandably, been deemed more urgent, and which have pushed decarbonisation down the list of things to do. In our own field of transport, far too close to nothing has been done. Can we, somehow, use this new global disaster to galvanise global action on the climate emergency?

Save the earth from coronavirus and the climate emergency

An old timer’s tale

Born and bred in Bolton, I’m a geographer and town planner who has been in the transport planning game since 1991. I worked for the planning, transport and economics consultancy, Colin Buchanan, in places including Oxford, London, Sydney and Shanghai, then for the Greater London Authority, the Strategic Rail Authority and, since 2005, the Department for Transport (DfT). For the last 7 years or so, I have been mostly working on how transport strategy can support the sustainable economic development of the North of England. That time has included secondments out of DfT to the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and Transport for the North.

Arriving at a university of 35,000 bright young students brings it home forcibly that I might be getting a bit older than I was. I’m still resisting the idea that I’m just an old timer with little fresh to offer, but I’m content to embrace the notion that I’ve now been around long enough to see a few turns of the wheel.

In 1991 we already knew a lot about climate change. Mainframe computers could churn out forecasts of future temperatures and sea levels that looked catastrophic. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, and ‘Local Agenda 21’ became a thing. Agenda 21 was essentially optimistic: through ‘sustainable development’ we could both fix poverty and save the planet.

I believed then (and still do) that transport planning could help balance our needs and desires for mobility with those for nicer, non-traffic-choked places to live in, whilst also saving the planet. I worked mostly on traffic reduction schemes for congested towns and cities.

In 1997, in the UK, after 5 years of civil society campaigning, the Road Traffic Reduction Act was passed. It was the final law passed by a Conservative government that had been in power for 18 years. Local authorities had to either set a target for reducing road traffic in their area, or explain why they considered it inappropriate to do so. As a young transport planner, it felt like a great success for the transport planners’ balanced approach, especially as a means of reducing transport carbon emissions. Then Tony Blair’s New Labour were elected on a landslide, and things were only going to get better.

The third annual Conference of Parties (COP-3) was held in Kyoto in 1997. The world’s leaders signed a protocol: the time for debate was over – global warming was real, man-made, and the world would act through binding agreements to stop it. Lobbyists, who were being paid by the fossil fuel industry to sow the confusion known as climate change scepticism, had been beaten. Or so it seemed.

But in 2000, US Vice-President Al Gore, who knew that climate change was an inconvenient truth that must be faced, was beaten in the US presidential election. The tied election in Florida was called for Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s brother, Texas oilman George W. Bush. The oilmen were now in control of the US Government, and progress on Kyoto stalled.

The world in crisis

I vividly remember the 9/11 attack on New York City in 2001. It seemed to come out of the blue and was deeply shocking. I ran out of the office and bought a set-top aerial for the cathode ray tube TV in my company’s conference room, so we could watch the live coverage on the BBC. Everybody knew that this meant some major change would now happen, but of course nobody at that time could know that it would launch a ‘war on terror’ that has so far cost between one and three million lives and US$1.8 trillion.

On 15 February 2003 ten million people in 600 cities protested against the invasion of Iraq. I expect most of those ten million would have readily agreed that global warming was the bigger overall issue, but if at the time you had asked them, they would have said – quite understandably – that trying to stop the war was the more urgent issue.

I also remember the global financial crisis of 2007-08, which first came to wide attention in August 2007 with the sight of people queuing down Northumberland Street in Newcastle to get their money out of Northern Rock bank; the first run on a British bank since 1866. By September 2008, the world was within days of the complete collapse of the global financial system.

US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s $700bn TARP bailout saved the US banks. Paulson, whose previous job was chairman and CEO of investment bank Goldman Sachs, signed off reclassification of Goldman as a clearing bank 24 hours before it would have gone bankrupt. This move qualified it for a $10bn bailout, no strings attached. Multi-million-dollar bonuses went straight back on the menu. Goldman’s CEO described the company as “doing God’s work”.

The financial system’s cardiac arrest was clearly a big thing, but few foresaw how much the choices made in its aftermath would dominate the decade to follow. Regarding climate change, it was not immediately apparent that the crash would stop progress towards concerted global action on carbon emissions. Arguably, Britain attempted to lead the way – by writing an 80% cut in emissions by 2050 into law, through Ed Miliband’s Climate Change Act 2008.

Barack Obama, who understood what climate change was and meant long term, had entered the White House, and people were getting ready for the world to agree binding emissions reductions at COP-15 in Copenhagen in December 2009. But Obama decided that the post-crash recession in the world economy was the more urgent problem and killed a meaningful deal that bound the USA to make serious emissions cuts.

The world recession saw governments’ income from taxation fall, and public sector deficits became a hot issue. In 2010, two Harvard economists, Reinhart and Rogoff, made a mistake on an Excel spreadsheet and there was a panic about how high public sector debt could safely go.

In Britain, the incoming Cameron/Clegg coalition government’s no.1 priority was to reduce the deficit, both by reducing public sector spending and by leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of growth. In the North of England, the growth agenda was branded as ‘building the Northern Powerhouse’. The UK looked to increase economic productivity using a definition of ‘productivity’ that measured Goldman Sachs bankers as the most productive workers in our economy.

But no sooner had that policy approach started to build up a head of steam than it was itself disrupted unexpectedly – by the Brexit referendum result in June 2016. Yet again, it was not immediately obvious that the ramifications of that shock would dominate the years to follow quite so completely. Despite best intentions, it does seem that the important lesson to learn is that our political system can only deal with one top priority at a time.

In 2016, at COP-21 in Paris, a deal to follow Kyoto was signed. But it placed greater emphasis on what needed to be done than about what would be done. By the end of 2018, the evidence on the ground of global heating as a real and present danger was everywhere – on the ice floes, in the rainforests, in an English country garden. Yet on the political agenda, worldwide, the issue was quiet.

It took a Swedish schoolgirl to remind the grown-ups of what they knew needed to be done, had promised would be done, and had then psychologically buried. In 2019, action on climate change was yanked back towards the top of the political agenda worldwide by youth-led peaceful protests. In the UK, 282 local authorities and the UK House of Commons declared a climate emergency. The British Government declared that it would strengthen its efforts to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement and set a new legally binding target of ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050.

And now, 2020

9/11 and the global financial crisis were giant emergencies, and they both had repercussions lasting longer than a decade. Yet in terms of both human deaths and economic impact, it’s very possible that coronavirus will become the bigger than both. We don’t know now how bad coronavirus will get in the world outside China, but things look bad.

Warren Buffett said about companies in a recession that when the tide goes out, you discover who’s been swimming without trunks. I think we are going to discover that this aphorism also holds for countries and economic systems.

The past 30 years of emergencies teaches us that we can already say two things: first, that coronavirus will squeeze the climate emergency out of the spotlight for a longer period of time than we presently expect, and second, that however bad it gets, in the long term it is still less important than the climate emergency.

The bush fires in Australia at Christmas 2019 were a clear message for everyone to grasp that we are running out of time to act. We can expect more devastating forest fires across Eurasia and North America in the 2020 northern hemisphere summer. We cannot afford for coronavirus to delay action on decarbonising our lifestyles and the world economy.

City lockdowns and the sudden halt of global aviation will slash world carbon emissions by a surprising amount in a period of a few weeks: the data will no doubt come in soon. Those who said deep cuts in carbon emissions were impossible are now empirically wrong. But the case that carbon emissions can be drastically reduced without provoking economic damage remains unproven.

It seems likely to me that the steps already taken to address this disaster will bring the current 40-50 year epoch in the world economic system to an end. What the economic system of the next epoch will be is currently up for grabs. The Wall Street and City of London boys who kept hold of the top perch after 2008 will be hatching a plan for it, although this disaster may prove too big even for them.

People working in health care, social care, supermarkets, logistics, food processing were defined as recently as a few weeks ago as ‘low skilled’, when what was meant was, they were low paid. By mainstream economics’ official definition, they were low productivity. This week they are the key workers without whom we can’t survive. That is a change already – but they remain the low paid. Will they accept that for long?

Outbreak map

Making use of the DecarboN8 Network

How can the DecarboN8 Network respond to this emergency, and make ourselves useful? First, we should recognise that the economic shock is massive, frightening and disorientating – like getting the disease itself. Second, again like getting the disease itself, if we survive it, we will emerge from it.

New ways of life and a new economy are now on the cards, whether we like it or not. The role of the DecarboN8 must be to keep the climate emergency and transport decarbonisation high on the political agenda as we emerge from the aftermath. We must assemble evidence, come up with ideas, and support our members to take action.

Through the DecarboN8 Network, you can play a role and have a voice in that. DecarboN8 will be reaching out to you soon, so watch this space. Together, let us find ways to deliver a climate smart recovery from this severe global crisis which is more equitable and future-proof.

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.

Budget 2020 – Transport: We can’t build our way out of the climate challenge

DecarboN8 Director, Professor Greg Marsden, analyses the implications of Budget 2020 for decarbonising transport

The budget is a missed opportunity to rebalance what we spend our transport funding on. Too much capital spending on road schemes will undermine the increases in spending on public transport, as will the 10th consecutive year of frozen fuel duty. Experience shows roadbuilding just generates more traffic and we can no longer afford to add to the size of the carbon challenge.  When the climate emergency demands a new approach that commits governments to create the conditions where we can travel less by car, we are spending more on roads.

The Budget proposes a £5.2bn budget for spending on major infrastructure investment in our major cities, all to be spoken for by 2025. This is on top of £5bn announced for investment in walking, cycling and bus improvements. This is all welcome and necessary but insufficient. Even with the most optimistic EV adoption pathways we will need to reduce the amount we travel by car by at least 10% and more than double bus, rail and cycling by 2030 and then do even more out to 2050. This funding will help deliver major public transport capacity improvements. However, we also require subsidy for service frequencies and fares to enable more routes to be available at more times of the day and night so people can use public transport for their everyday needs. We see no sign of this switch to revenue support in the budget, where capital spending remains king.

Contrast the £5.2bn for public transport to “the largest ever investment in English strategic roads, with over £27 billion between 2020 and 2025”. When we build more roads or add capacity we encourage more driving. Add to this the freeze in fuel duty for a “record tenth year in a row”. The OBR estimates that fuel duty freezes mean there has been a 40% real-terms fall in the tax share of GDP which fuel duty provides since 1990 as motoring gets cheaper. The result? New car sales of SUVs have sky rocketed as consumers have traded up the lower costs of motoring and better engine technology to bigger cars. 37 SUVs were sold for every Battery Electric Car in 2018. Whilst there is a welcome continuation of incentives for the Plug-in-Car Grant those are still well below those in countries such as Norway who lead the way.

If we cannot be compliant with our carbon pathway without reducing how much we drive then why on earth are we building more roads? They won’t be needed if the other things we have to do take priority. At the very least there should be a moratorium on new road construction until the penetration of EVs in the fleet is close to 100% – so not any time in the period of this budget. One of the key problems is that the Treasury appears to be writing the cheques on what the balance of spending will be before the Department for Transport publishes its long awaited Decarbonisation Strategy. Given the recent experience with the legal challenge to the third runway at Heathrow, it would not be surprising to see further court challenge to this “infrastructure first” approach in the coming months.

The focus on shovel-ready infrastructure expansion on the roads will, regrettably simply dig us a bigger climate hole to get out of.

induced demand

DecarboN8 at Leeds State of the City

The Climate Emergency was the theme of Leeds City Council’s State of the City event this year. Several members of the DecarboN8 team attended to talk with participants about what they felt needed to change in order for Leeds to become a city where you do not need to own a car.

Councillor Judith Blake opened the event by sharing a vision of Leeds as a place where it doesn’t matter where you were born, you should have equal access to opportunities, clean air, transport, and quality of life. The people we spoke to found it easy to imagine how reducing our dependence on cars could help achieve this goal. There was an overwhelming sentiment that a city the size of Leeds should have great public transport. People are ready to ditch their cars in favour of more sustainable options, but they are finding it difficult to shift away from car-use due to the high cost, poor coverage, and lack of capacity on trains and buses serving the Leeds area at the moment. They also feel unsafe cycling and walking in our car-packed city.

DecarboN8 Director, Professor Greg Marsden, shared this presentation with a workshop which looked at transport, challenging participants to think about what changes would be required to make Leeds a less car-dependant city:

Later in the workshop we were asked to map our journeys around Leeds, consider where we could shift those journeys to more sustainable travel options, and discuss what barriers prevent us from choosing those options. Participants spoke of having to travel by car for most journeys because public transport options were unavailable, unreliable, too costly, or felt unsafe. Others mentioned peripheral factors such as their children’s school not providing anywhere for the children to store their coats, making walking difficult, especially in winter.

DecarboN8 also had a stall in the exhibition area, where we provided maps of the Leeds area to participants and invited them to draw their ideal transport future for Leeds. You can see their responses in the slide deck below. Common themes include: the need for circular public transport routes connecting suburbs, congestion charging, a pedestrianised city centre and safe walking and cycle paths.

Keynote speaker, Natalie Fee, from City to Sea shared this quote:

“We change our behaviour when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing”. ~ Tony Robbins

The conversations we had at the State of the City event suggest that people in Leeds care about the climate crisis and are keen to change their behaviour, but at the moment the pain of changing still feels too great. Those we spoke to concurred that to shift this, balance better public transport and active travel options must be extended across the city to provide safe and reliable alternatives to the car, fit for the complex realities of people’s day to day lives.

DecarboN8 is offering seedcorn funding to develop research projects to tackle these kinds of issues. The deadline for applications is 5pm on 27th February 2020.

Decarbonising Transport: Connecting Carbon Targets to Action

Earlier this month we held our first workshop on the theme of Carbon Pathways, ‘Decarbonising Transport: Connecting Carbon Targets to Action’. The workshop was attended by a mix of people from academia, local and national government, industry and civil society. Participants heard evidence from members of the DecarboN8 team and the CREDS Centre (slides for these presentations are shared below) about the scale and nature of the decarbonisation challenge. Through a series of participatory activities, attendees shared their local and professional knowledge to interrogate how carbon budgets can best be used to inform transport policy and modelled possibilities for a low-carbon transport future in a variety of Northern locations.

The morning’s break out activities on carbon targets will directly inform a forthcoming series of policy briefings. The afternoon activities underlined the value of taking place-based approaches when thinking about decarbonisation pathways. The very different urban and rural cases, when considered over both the short and long term, produced some fascinating contrasts. A key challenge will be to produce a supportive policy framework and set of technologies which can encompass and adapt to these differences. Insights and challenges identified throughout the day are already being used to inform DecarboN8’s research priorities.

Introduction to DecarboN8

Professor Greg Marsden

CREDS: The Carbon Briefing

Professor Jillian Anable

Aligning UK Car CO2 with Paris

Professor Kevin Anderson

Making Mobility Futures: Carbon Pathways and Societal Readiness

Professor Monika Büscher and Dr Nicola Spurling

Our aim with this series of thematic workshops is to inform research objectives for future funding calls and to inspire collaboration by bringing together a variety of stakeholders interested in decarbonising transport.

For regular updates about upcoming projects, events and funding calls subscribe to our newsletter. We’ve also recently announced our first round of seedcorn funding. The deadline is 27th February and we welcome applications from all disciplines to develop research projects to help decarbonise transport in the North.

Thank you to everyone who attended our Launch Event!

Thank you to everyone who participated and helped contribute to the packed agenda full of challenging and inspiring ideas about place-based decarbonisation of transport for the North.

Thanks too to everyone who joined us online for the morning via our livestream and Q&A. If you missed it you can check out the recording on YouTube!

And our friends at Influential produced this short video for the N8 Research Partnership about the day.

Ideas and contributions from the day have been collated to help inform our priorities and agenda for the future of DecarboN8. The slides are available to review on SlideShare:

The launch was of course just the start – in the coming weeks and months we have many more opportunities for you to get involved and work with us to decarbonise transport across the North:

Seedcorn Funding Call NOW OPEN:

Check our our funding pages for details of our first round of seedcorn funding. A pot of £100,000 is available to support individual or collaborative seed/pilot/demonstrator projects led by UK Research Organisations. The deadline for applications is 5pm (GMT) on Thursday 27 February 2020.

DecarboN8 Stakeholder Reference Group

Our advisory group made up of individuals providing place or sector specific insight. This group will help shape the research agenda, connect with networks, review publications and evaluate projects. Please apply now if you’d like to get involved!

Keep in touch

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Social Acceptance and Societal Readiness Levels

Monika Büscher and Nicola Spurling

Social change is critical to rapid decarbonisation. Citizens’ active participation in energy management is ‘as critical as technology’ for sustainability[1]; not least because social innovation could support decarbonisation at scale, and faster than technical or infrastructural innovation[2].  However, technocratic conceptions of social acceptance and societal readiness are misdirected. Innovation cannot succeed by demanding that individuals and society change to accept it.

Decarbon8 develops a new framework to evaluate the societal readiness of socio-technical innovations. This working note motivates this move in outline, provides working definitions of social acceptance and societal readiness from a socio-technical perspective, a sketch of the Societal Readiness Levels (SRL) framework for evaluation we are developing, and a set of questions that research teams can use to develop the societal readiness of their innovations.   

Why take a socio-technical approach to social acceptability and societal readiness?

At a time when millions of people across the globe are demanding action on climate change, and 88% of UK citizens understand that human action is mainly or partly responsible for climate change[3], it can hardly be said that society is not ready for change. However, our innovations often do not enable change. People are imprisoned by mobility systems that leave them very little real choice over how to travel[4]. Indeed, the depth of systemic lock-in and the demand for social acceptance of narrow technological fixes (electric vehicles) and policy interventions (carbon taxes) delay action towards systemic and structural change[5]. We are headed for failure if we continue to design technologies, policies, infrastructures, ideologies that people cannot integrate into their everyday lives. The social acceptability of our solutions must improve. Methodologies that allow citizens genuine participation in innovation processes are needed[6]. A socio-technical approach can enhance the ambition and effectiveness of innovations by inspiring socially acceptable design for systemic change and societal transformation.

What is social acceptance in a socio-technical definition?

The social science is in: the ABC of transition theories, which all too often posit that education, nudging, or enforcement can effect social acceptance, is wrong[7]. A change of A – individuals’ Attitudes, will not automatically translate into B – Behaviour change, and ultimately C – Change in the system. Technocratic concepts equate social acceptance with behaviour change, evaluating the willingness of individuals to ‘take’ the technologies, policies, infrastructure innovations that experts devise. This hubris denies that there are factors that make technologies, policies, infrastructures more or less acceptable for people – they may not be desirable, useable or effective for good reasons. 

A socio-technical definition of social acceptance helps us understand these reasons. It sees acceptance as a process by which innovation becomes embedded in everyday practices, that needs to be supported by good design and creative, inclusive design methods. It enables a focus on enhancing the acceptability of solutions. This may imply careful attention to useability, and the context of appropriation, it may require wider systemic change, it will often depend on stakeholder value chain mapping, and methods of collaborative design and responsible research and innovation. 

What is societal readiness in a socio-technical definition?

Societal readiness refers to the readiness of a socio-technical assemblage to be acceptable to society. That is, it evaluates how well a solution supports appropriation at scale and at speed, as well as how it contributes to the public good. For example, a fully digitised on-demand transport solution may be highly practical and fit for appropriation. However, it may introduce societally unacceptable levels of surveillance. As a result, it has low societal readiness. Its societal readiness can be improved by building privacy preserving techniques into its use of data and by involving citizens and stakeholders in an iterative design process that discloses and addresses emerging unintended consequences through creative ethical and social impact assessment and design. To give a second example, a solution may be highly acceptable to affluent citizens with high mobility capital, but create mobility injustice for others. By anticipating and addressing issues of equity, gender, age, class, ethnicity and other aspects of inequality, innovations can be enhanced.

What is the role of place in societal readiness?

Technocratic approaches are often based on an approach to innovation in which ‘solutions’ are developed for imagined, generic users, in non-specific places. If people or places do not share the vision, they are seen as the problem. 

In DecarboN8 we disagree with this point of view. 

DecarboN8’s place-based approach addresses challenges faced across the North as specific, and very diverse places are seeking to rapidly decarbonise transport. Understanding place is an essential starting point for making decarbonised transport futures. 

A key question is: How can we ensure that innovations in decarbonised travel are ready for specific places? This requires taking account of place-specific characteristics including:

  1. existing transport infrastructures and services that vary by place – this variety of starting points should feature in future designs; 
  2. populations vary by age, disability, gender, ethnicity with different implications for inclusivity and access; 
  3. different place-specific systems and cultures of mobility mean that lifestyles need to change in different ways; 
  4. the end uses underpinning travel demands have different profiles across the region. 

DecarboN8’s place-based approach emphasises that innovation must be designed and combined in ways that are more attuned to how people wish to, and are able to, practice transformation in different places.

Societal Readiness Levels (SRL)

There is currently a surge of interest in societal readiness, and various definitions of ‘societal readiness levels’ are emerging. The SRL concept originates in debates about a transition towards low carbon futures2 and the Danish Innovation Fund’s attempt to find a ‘way of assessing the level of societal adaptation of … innovation to be integrated into society’[8]. This contrasts with the more common approach of technology readiness levels[9], which evaluates how ‘proposed solution(s)’ meet ‘plans for societal adaptation’. For example, in the context of future transport, a technology readiness approach would evaluate the decarbonising potential of a proposed innovation, and place responsibility for increasing society’s readiness for it with individuals, communities, societies, politicians, and policy makers. It would propose innovations and then ask how to alter people’s attitudes and behaviours to effect change.  

DecarboN8 is critical of this technology readiness approach. 

The societal readiness levels that we are developing (see figure 1) turns the tables. Instead of asking how society can be made ready for innovations, we ask: How ready are our socio-technical innovations for society?
Figure 1: Socio-technical definition of societal readiness levels

At the lower levels in our emerging socio-technical framework of societal readiness levels, are concepts and technologies like electric vehicles, which have the potential to support systemic change but are isolated from real world practice and lacking societal and material infrastructure for large-scale appropriation. Moving up the scale are experimental embeddings of technologies, such as the Tyndall Travel Strategy and the University of Edinburgh’s business travel reporting tool prototype, which are being effectively used to reduce emissions from academic travel, and are engendering social innovations, such as no-fly academic conferences. Within its 2019-2022 remit, the DecarboN8 Network aims to reach innovations that are at SRL4 and 5. Plans for future efforts envisage achievement of SRL 8 and 9, with liveable, effective, significantly decarbonising innovations (net zero carbon), which are aligned with systemic changes and evaluated as societally ‘good’ by a broad and diverse group of stakeholders, including citizens.

Achievement of high Societal Readiness Levels depends upon engagement with diverse stakeholders and translation of insight into synchronised technical, regulatory, policy, and social innovation. Discussion of ‘Impact Readiness Levels’[10] by the Dandelion project on an inclusive, innovative and reflective societies-sensitive valorisation concept offer valuable insight into the kinds of engagements with stakeholders that are conducive to our aims. 

How to design for societal readiness?

The DecarboN8 network seeks to facilitate co-creation of a socio-technical framework for achieving high-quality innovation for rapid decarbonisation of transport in the UK. The discussion in this document is intended as an invitation to members of the network to engage critically with the notions of social acceptance and societal readiness, and co-create a good framework with us.

Below we raise some questions that we believe can support designing for socio-technical societal readiness. They are by no means exhaustive or prescriptive:

  • Is your innovation (technology / policy / infrastructure / transport plan / form of activism) ready for the individuals, communities in our society? 
  • Is your innovation good for society? Now and in future? How do you know? What are the contextual and systemic dimensions of your innovation?  
  • Have you considered all relevant perspectives? Who has been involved in your design process and how? Have all those affected had a say? Have they been listened to? Have you made it possible for the less powerful to be heard on an equal footing?
  • Have people had an opportunity to try out your innovation in their everyday lives? Have you undertaken multiple iterations of your design to discover disruptive consequences?  
  • Have you considered and addressed ethical issues, from accessibility to mobility justice to datafication? From individual to societal scales? Now and future generations? 

[1] EU Commission(2012) Energy roadmap 2050. Publications Office of the European Union.ISBN 978-92-79-21798-2, doi:10.2833/10759.

[2] Allwood, J. M., Gutowski, T. G., Serrenho, A. C., Skelton, A. C. H., & Worrell, E. (2017, June 13). Industry 1.61803: The transition to an industry with reduced material demand fit for a low carbon future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. Royal Society.

[3]  YouGov – International Climate Change Survey, Fieldwork: 11 June – 22 July 2019

[4] Anthony Rae, 25th November DecarboN8 Launch, Leeds Crowne Plaza Hotel; Urry, J. (2004). The ‘System’ of Automobility. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4–5), 25–39.

[5] UNEP (2019) United Nations Environment Programme. Emissions Gap Report 2019. UNEP, Nairobi. P. 54

[6] Cardullo, P., & Kitchin, R. (2019). Being a ‘citizen’ in the smart city: up and down the scaffold of smart citizen participation in Dublin, Ireland. GeoJournal, 84(1).

[7] Shove, E. (2010). Beyond the ABC: climate change policy and theories of social change. Environment and Planning A, 42(6), 1273 – 1285.

[8] Danish Innovation Fund, 2019,; Schraudner, Martina, Fabian Schroth, Malte Juetting, Simone Kaiser, Jeremy Millard, and Shenja van der Graaf. 2018. ‘Social Innovation The Potential for Technology Development, RTOs and Industry.  Policy Paper’. Fraunhofer.

[9]  Mankins, John C. 1995. ‘Technology Readiness Levels. White Paper’. NASA.

[10] Dandelion Project. (2018). IIRS Valorisation Methodology.