Better, Fairer, Cleaner – The Transport Decarbonisation Plan v2.0

by Greg Marsden

This is the imaginary foreword to a Transport Decarbonisation Plan which addresses how we really get to zero emissions in a hurry. It is written in the style of a White Paper foreword. Where possible it builds on existing commitments in the July TDP

There is a climate emergency

Transport is the largest contributor to UK greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), with road transport alone accounting for almost a quarter of our total emissions in 2019.

Emissions have not reduced in the past 30 years

We have just 30 years to get to zero emissions for travel around the UK and to make major inroads on aviation and maritime emissions. We have 10 years to do the heavy lifting. If we have not cut our emissions by two-thirds by then we will have failed.

Things have got to change

Successive governments’ responses to the climate crisis have been too slow and so now, despite amazing technological advancements in the electrification of bikes, delivery vans and cars, we know that technology cannot change fast enough to meet our emission reduction targets. And we do not yet have technological solutions for all parts of the transport system.

We need to adapt how we live, as well as what propels us when we travel. The pandemic has taught us that people need more good quality space, cleaner air to breathe and that businesses and communities can adapt and support major changes to how we work, shop, and meet.

We have a once in a generation opportunity to fix some of the failings which led to the congested and polluted transport system which we have. This plan sets out a vision for a transport system that will support healthier, fairer, economically vibrant communities. It will also get to zero emissions in a hurry.

A third of cars sit idle on any given day. When we do use them they are in motion for typically 5% of the time. In the morning commute only one in five cars has more than one person in it. Many households rely on a car or have more than one car because the alternatives are not good enough. Some households own cars even when they cannot afford to heat their homes or take a week’s holiday.

Our first aim as the Department for Transport should be to reduce the need to travel so often or so far by ensuring we build neighbourhoods with good facilities, and we support digitalisation of services where this improves ease and quality of access.

When people do need to travel, we need to provide options so that they can do it in a clean and efficient way. This means a step change in more integrated and multi-modal transport, which includes access to the car.

We know much of what needs to be done to provide alternatives to the private car, particularly in our towns and cities. But political parties of every colour have lacked the collective will over the past decades to do what needs to be done.

We will spend an additional £35 billion on cycling, walking, bus, and local place improvements for the period to 2030.

We will support the expansion of inter-urban cycle infrastructure to encourage the use of e-bikes and other advances in smaller electric mobility solutions.

The funding will come from cancelling the new roads programme of the Roads Investment Strategy 2 and any successor expansion plans. National Highways will instead be tasked with facilitating greater shared use of its facilities and in accelerating the adoption of zero carbon maintenance practices to ensure the network we have is in excellent condition.

Public transport has not provided a credible alternative for many and this needs to change. We also have to recognise that Covid-19 has impacted profoundly on our travel patterns. Some of this will never return as we find new working patterns. These changes have further undermined the market-led approach to transport which have been used for bus and rail for the past 30 to 40 years.

The Government has provided billions of pounds of emergency funding during the pandemic to keep services running. Without further intervention however, the loss of bus and rail passengers will result in service reductions, creating a vicious cycle which makes public transport less attractive just at the point when it needs to do more.

We will significantly increase our support for the bus industry to enable the creation of managed franchise networks with guaranteed green fleets, low fares and minimum services levels set for different areas.

This will also enable local authorities to act as brokers for new multi-modal transport offers to enable some people to give up the car because they no longer need it. This will be funded by a one-off increase in fuel duty in 2023 and will be matched by workplace parking levies from 2025 as already adopted in Nottingham.

Funding support for rail is at an all-time high and our approach here will be to deliver the reforms of the Williams Shapps review to create a railway better matched to the new realities without providing additional funding.

We will freeze rail fares at today’s levels for the next decade, as we have with fuel duty for cars in the decade past.

The private sector is not in a position to increase services right now and to take on the financial risks of trying to create a step change in public transport. With the increased commitment to funding public transport comes a requirement for local and national government to specify the services and fares it wants and to match those to other incentives and charges for other transport modes.

However, we recognise that local government and national government do not have the skills to run services and so we will introduce these changes working with the private sector as delivery partners and encouraging their innovation as part of the solution. But the transition to zero emissions can’t all be delivered by the public sector alone.

We will ensure that bigger businesses, as part of their requirement to reach zero emissions, are accountable for the emissions of how their workers and customers get to their sites.

Together, business and government can find better solutions that are customer focussed. The UK is home to a fantastic set of innovative companies who are promoting shared access to cars and sharing of cars and mini-buses for commute and leisure trips, which will help underpin this shift through a new Commute Zero programme.

Increasing the efficiency with which we use our cars, making greater use of public transport and active modes coupled with innovations in teleworking, e-commerce and telemedicine will all help reduce the traffic on our roads.

We are aiming for a 20% reduction against 2019 levels by 2030, as in Scotland, whilst enhancing health, wellbeing and prosperity.

This change brings other opportunities. As well as allowing us to spend money on public transport that might otherwise have gone on yet more road-widening, we can focus our innovation on making the UK a leader in re-using materials – the so-called ‘circular economy’.

We will ensure that the Office of Road and Rail creates a regulatory environment to stimulate the road and rail sector for ever greater re-use of materials.

We will continue to invest in our leading Faraday Battery Institute to maximise battery life and support re-use of precious metals.

The climate crisis requires both a major revolution in how we travel and the rapid switch to low and then zero emission vehicles.

We must be clear though that, right now, there is no such thing as a zero-emission vehicle and this will be true for some time as the electricity grid decarbonises and whilst we find ways to reduce the emissions in producing vehicles.

Our task is not to count how many electric cars there are, but to reduce the average emissions of all cars as quickly as possible.

We have taken important steps to set the phase out dates of petrol and diesel cars and are moving this on now to heavier goods vehicles and buses. This creates important signals which will drive innovation across the sector and bring new job opportunities to the UK.

As well as phasing out petrol and diesel cars, we will set stretching targets for manufacturers to reduce the emissions of the vehicles they do sell.

The longer we go on buying bigger petrol and diesel using cars the greater the requirement for a reduction in vehicle miles travelled. The Citizens’ Assembly tells us that, out of all the difficult choices we face, this is something which government should do.

We also have to address the fairness of the shift to electric vehicles. Right now, even with our subsidy programme, electric vehicles have high upfront costs which are offset by cheaper running costs.

However, we now have a system of paying for road travel where those who are driving petrol and diesel cars are paying three to four times more per mile than electric car drivers who do not face fuel duty. This is not sustainable as the costs of buying electric cars fall.

We will work with the Treasury to develop a new system of charging for road use to be introduced by 2030 which does not increase overall costs in real-terms for motorists above 2019 levels. This will be designed through a process with a Citizen’s Assembly at the heart of it.

Whilst the options for changing how people move around are well understood, the options for freight are less so.

We will invest in technology demonstration trials to determine how best to support our commitment to move to zero emission heavy goods vehicles.

We will also work with Treasury to provide incentives to reduce unnecessary freight miles.

We will look to incentivise home deliveries which are more consolidated and penalise those which are not, reducing the number of vans running round our neighbourhoods.

We will also support local micro-consolidation points where onward deliveries can be made by e-bikes or collections made as part of public transport trips.

On aviation, we will take a twin track approach. We will invest for a long-term transition in aviation emissions through more sustainable fuels and electrification of short-haul flights. This will all take time however and so we need to take other actions in the short-term. 70% of flights are made by a wealthy 15% of the population. We need a fair transition.

Rather than taxing all flights heavily, we will introduce a frequent flyer levy in line with the recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly.

We will also revisit our aviation strategy to ensure that any growth forecasts which might support airport expansion are consistent with our carbon commitments.

As a society we have never tried something as ambitious as decarbonising the whole economy in such a short timescale. There are difficult choices but also huge opportunities.

This plan promises a better future as well as a zero emissions future. It creates a fairer future with a better transport system for everyone. It will create green jobs in industries which promote better use of our planet’s scarce resources.

We can’t know all of the answers now. But we can set out, with purpose, on a different and better pathway to a zero emission future.

*This article is underpinned by research from DecarboN8, CREDS and UKERC and the DEMAND Centre. It does not, as a result, cover maritime policies.