Rowing Backwards: The New Politics of Decarbonisation

by Greg Marsden

In this short blog I reflect on what Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement on Wednesday really means for decarbonisation policy in transport. It is probably worth starting by recapping on the things he will not be pursuing or will be delaying in transport. Actually, its just one, the phase out of the sale of fossil fuel vehicles will now be moved back from 2030 to 2035. “The proposal for government to interfere with how many passengers you can have in your car” was never a government policy and neither were the “new taxes to discourage flying or going on holiday”. These are not even U-turns. I can’t find the right adjective just now that seems printable.

Stepping back from the bluster for just a moment, the announcements will probably have limited impact on policies from where we stand today. There will still be mandated targets on the pathway up to 2030 for the percentage of new car sales that will be electric. Before we get to 2030 the purchase cost of an EV should be comparable to a fossil fuel car and running costs are already less – so consumer demand should be high. We can perhaps expect a hit of up to a year’s worth of current emissions – dependent on how manufacturers respond and consumers.

The hard pressed families, which the speech mentions, will be operating in the second hand and not the new car market. Actually, leaving them on fossil fuels for longer with the tax regime we currently have in the UK will be hugely regressive as they will continue to pay fuel duty and 20% VAT while EV drivers will only face VAT on domestic energy for the most part. The sales pitch is that delaying the phase out is for the worse off – quite the reverse. The other announcements to not implement misrepresented ideas that have been floated just closes off the box of future options somewhat – but makes no difference to the current pathway.

The politics of climate change

What matters most to me is what we can learn about the politics of climate change and the wedges and dividing lines and language which is being generated (and promulgated or fanned by parts of the media). This matters to how the problem is being framed and what solutions are on the table and likely to be funded in the next year.

Two key statements were:

“And when our share of global emissions is less than 1%, how can it be right that British citizens, are now being told to sacrifice even more than others?” and

“We’re stuck between two extremes – those who want to abandon Net Zero altogether… and then there are those who argue with an ideological zeal: we must move even faster, and go even further no matter the cost or disruption to people’s lives…”

Which camp are you in then? If you want to suggest a policy that someone doesn’t like then you are a zealot. Then we have “Why don’t we wait for China to act?” and “Why are we trying to go faster than the rest of Europe?” [I had thought that being freed of the slowing pace of reaching agreement across EU countries was one of the bonus we were promised from Brexit – but now we seem to be tying ourselves in to not going faster than our neighbours].

What matters here though is how this gets played back locally – “Why has Nottingham set 2028 as a target?”. “Why not regress to Anytown which has yet to set a target….” Regressing to the slowest performer is a really bad outcome and I feel certain that this will play out in local transport plan politics.

What matters too is that government will not be “interfering” or “making you change” or “discouraging”. Anyone who works in transport knows how important winning hearts and minds is and how difficult establishing more pro-environmental behaviours can be. But there are great examples of where this works. There was no talk in the speech about creating the conditions for change, just a tightening of the rhetoric that behaviour change is not for government to lead on but for consumers to choose. Even if you prefer the language of choice – what matters is what choices are put in front of people to choose from (see Jillian Anable for details!).

It is hard to see the credible conditions for any form of reduction in travel demand being created before the election. Transport was already trending well behind the requirements that the CCC set out for the sector in the 6th carbon budget. The watering down of the phase out of fossil fuels pushes us a bit further out. Meanwhile, the lack of impetus on behaviour change and the cutbacks to budgets for active travel tell us that there is no Plan B to backfill this technology shortfall. I think we should all be concerned about what this means to the our ability to meet our carbon budgets. We should also be concerned about how far it sets us back in winning the argument that some travel demand change is actually good for the economy, health and well-being, air quality (oh, and carbon by the way). Why have we not had the Local Transport Plan Guidance and the Quantitative Carbon Reduction guidance? It seems pretty clear that this is currently held in a process of dilution or, plausibly, might not be seen.

Net Zero reality check

We should also be mindful of the further game playing with Net Zero by 2050: “we will still meet our international commitments and hit Net Zero by 2050”. 2050 is a distraction, it is the total carbon budget and not what we do in 2050 which matters. As Chris Stark, the Chief Executive of the CCC said on Thursday, we were off track for the earlier carbon budget periods before this announcement and it is wishful thinking to suggest that we are now anything other than further off track. This slight of hand around 2050 is not surprising to me. I hear far too many decision makers and practitioners talking about 2050.

If we start slow then we fail fast, because we cannot make up for any more lost time. Particularly if we are leaving half of the toolbox to one side. The next move, which we already saw in the March 2023 Carbon Budget Delivery Plan, is the increasing role that “negative emission technologies” will play such as carbon capture and storage. If your “house is on fire” you would probably try and put it out with equipment you knew existed and worked rather than hoping there was still a bit of your house left for when someone invented a new and more affordable dousing technique. The reliance on negative emission technologies is just the sort of uncosted and untransparent behaviour which the PM is saying he wishes to call out. Well, there you are.

Transparency matters

My final note is to give a wry smile to the statement “in a democracy, we must also be able to scrutinise and debate those [policy] changes, many of which are hidden in plain sight – in a realistic manner”. For those that followed my FOI request or the legal case on the advice on the Net Zero Strategy. Transparency from central government has been lacking. When the PM says “we” it is not quite clear who he means. Maybe I missed something, but there is no accompanying folio of figures which explains the basis of the “fairness” assessment that appears to have been made, nor to justify the emissions increases or savings which will result from different actions. Perhaps those exist – but I don’t think “we” are really meant to see them if they do. It’s just a nice story. Except it has got some very bleak undertones which set us back much further than just the policies and ideas which were on the gallows on Wednesday.