"Everything is Awesome..."

Some positives first – the UK’s transport industry has been pushing Government for guidance on how it intends to deliver on the legally binding target to achieve net zero carbon by 2050 since pretty much the day after its original Decarbonising Transport Strategy was released. This follow-up Plan, published 16 months later, brings much of the detail needed to appreciate how Government foresees being able to achieve that aim; and was developed with input from a range of public, government and industry stakeholders.

The formation of a Net Zero Transport Board is also encouraging; signalling Government’s intention to hold itself to account over the long-term life of this plan. The founding group’s broad mix of members and perspectives is constructive, although the absence of representation from Network Rail, Rail Delivery Group, Highways England, and any key maritime or aviation industry bodies feels like an oversight. That the group is chaired by the Secretary of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, and does not invite cross-party collaboration, suggests the important mission to decarbonise Britain’s transport systems will remain politicised – perhaps missing an important ‘trick’ to ensure this existential issue is more consistently baked-in to every political agenda and election manifesto for years to come (saving much debate in the process).

There is also a refreshing honesty in some areas. The Plan recognises we will continue to learn the true scale of the challenge involved in addressing man-made climate change, and the technological solutions needed to reduce carbon footprints from all transport modes to net zero by 2050. 

Carbon Net Zero Graphic | Royal HaskoningDHV

It also appreciates the interconnectedness of many transport services – reflecting the reality of many people’s everyday journeys – and

In summary, the proposals are progressive and effectively link rising carbon emissions from transport with climate change, worsening air quality in towns and cities, and a host of social / health / economic inequalities.  For some though this is long overdue, and only now recognises challenges we have been teaching our children in schools since the early 1990’s. recognises interdependencies with energy, business, innovation, health and skills/training/education sectors (but without getting bogged down by them).

"Here in my car, I feel safest of all..."

At its heart, the Plan is keen to point out a belief that Britain’s net zero carbon ambitions can be achieved 'without stopping people doing things', but by doing them differently. While almost certainly a politically necessity, that statement sets the tone for an underwhelming approach to recognising the importance of travel behaviour change.  It overlooks that the ‘climate emergency’ declared by many public authorities and leading businesses is so imminent that gradual changes, phased-in over time and gathering momentum towards 2050, will not prevent the interim (and potentially irreversible) harm caused through the planet’s continued warming.  It also runs counter to evidence from the academic research being undertaken by the Decarbon8 group which lays bare the scale and pace of change needed:
There are no future scenarios in which the UK can meet its carbon reduction milestones over the next two decades whilst car traffic is allowed to grow. This is true even if electric vehicle uptake is massively accelerated.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect here is the lack of recognition of a need to act urgently to begin reducing transport sector carbon emissions as soon as possible. This is reflected by the fact that only the lower (i.e. most optimistic) bounds of the forecast trajectories get Britain to a net zero carbon position for transport in time for 2050 (and not for all travel modes).

It also highlights the lack of clear, and aggressive, interim transport sector targets linked to the Government’s 6th Carbon Budget, which aims for a 78% reduction in total emissions by 2035. Indeed, the recommendations prepared by the Committee on Climate Change (pg. 106) appear to recognise the need for greater urgency – proposing a more rapid ramp-up in sales of fully electric vehicles and charge point infrastructure by 2025, alongside a 6% reduction in demand for car travel (relative to baseline forecasts) by 2030. It suggested this needs to be supported by greater investment in high-quality public transport and active travel infrastructure.
A clearer, more vision led assertion of what is desirable - rather than what is considered politically and publicly acceptable - could have been focused more on the following kinds of changes:

Modeshift graphic | Royal HaskoningDHV
  1. Shifting as many as possible of the 43% of all urban and town journeys that are under 2 miles in length to walking and cycling options. The forecast potential reduction in emissions from walking and cycling (a 1-6 MtCOe saving from 2020 – 2050) feels conservative, given over 55% of all emissions are the result of car and taxi journeys. This would yield early carbon removal without a need to generate higher levels of electricity to power clean vehicles that will take a long time to proliferate into Britain’s vehicle fleets. 
    It will require a fundamental shift in attitudes to local transport policy outside of London and some major Metropolitan Areas – which continue to only make space for cycling and walking options (and prioritised public transport routes) in locations where schemes can be delivered without disadvantaging motorists’ journey times.
  2. Switching as many of the remaining short urban journeys and those under 5 miles in length to clean public transport services. Bus, coach and rail services emit such a small portion of total baseline emissions (3.9%) that they could likely be doubled in scale, continue to be fuelled as they currently are, and still make a near-term net carbon reduction if they resulted in fewer car journeys.  Significantly greater priority in urban areas, to reduce journey times and improve reliability, would further help.
  3. Switching domestic air travel to coach and (high speed, if necessary) rail services for all but the longest domestic flights, and those which ‘cross water’. While these emissions are a low portion of the baseline total (1.2%), they generate additional surface access movements (accounted for in other categories) and emit carbon higher into the atmosphere which is more harmful to climate change and other environmental impacts. 

"Hit the road Jack, and don't you come back..."

Alongside these readily implementable policy, funding and infrastructure delivery challenges sits the task of rolling out the infrastructure needed to decarbonise essential and unavoidable motorised journeys.  Quite rightly, this should focus on cars and vans, but be followed closely by LGVs and HGVs, which together emitted 88% of all greenhouse gas emissions by transport in 2019.

As demonstrated by the technology requirement diagrams on page 204 of the Plan, these feel like implementation and scale-up challenges – linked more to energy supply/charging infrastructure networks and vehicle affordability issues – rather issues requiring substantial technological innovation (although that is likely to continue, driven by the motor vehicle manufacturing industry).  The greatest issue may be decarbonising van, LGV, and HGV modes at a time when online retail is driving an increased demand for the movement of things to a wider range of destinations (effectively, every front door in the country) than ever before.

For the industries without clear trajectories for achieving net zero carbon- in particular aviation and maritime - there is a clear and urgent need for Great Britain’s international obligations to be jointly agreed with other nations and multinational operators.  The recommendations in the The Plan also identifies the considerable opportunities for low-carbon economic growth, through research and development investment, which offers scope for GB enterprises to become industry leaders in the design and advanced manufacturing of low-carbon fuels and propulsion technologies.  Depending on the success of this innovation, there may still be a need to offset some carbon emissions from these modes in the medium to long-term.

"I've gotta' follow the money, gotta' go to work..."

Reflecting on the observations set out above, there is a nagging sense that sufficient budget, policy focus, and delivery priority, is not being channelled in a way that will facilitate swift progress on decarbonisation across transport sectors.  While the £2bn commitment to improve cycling infrastructure, and £3bn allocated to public transport are significant uplifts from times of recent austerity, they are put in the shade when compared with:
  • The £3.77bn annual operating cost for bus services in Great Britain (excluding London). £3bn of support for, and investment in, local bus and light rail services feels like a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to electrify all bus fleets and significantly expand networks in urban and suburban areas such that people choose to use buses and trams over private cars.
  • The £1.25m - £2.5m per-Km cost of delivering cycle superhighways in urban areas. £2bn will deliver ~800km – ~1,500km of new dedicated routes at most. For context, Nottingham City Council alone (a single unitary authority that covers a relatively compact urban area) maintains 774km of highways and footways that have an asset value in excess of £1bn.
  • The £27bn allocated to enable Highways England to deliver the second Road Investment Strategy – a programme of road building that is likely to induce demand for higher levels of car use (and which may yet be subject to renewed legal challenge in the context of its detrimental near-term impact on carbon emissions and air pollution).
  • The ~£74bn of annualised wider costs to society that are linked to the current transport system (presented on page 32 of the Plan), and which could be considered a benefit of mode shift and decarbonisation.
  • The £98bn cost of HS2 (Stage one and two) which is forecast to add to, rather than reduce, GB rail emissions:

Decarbonising Transport Graph | Royal HaskoningDHV

References to major infrastructure plans that were designed before the pandemic seems to overlook that climate science has been fairly unequivocal for some time, so shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise in 2021.  It begs the fundamental question as to whether the forthcoming Integrated Rail Plan, and Road Investment Strategy 2, can be considered ‘Net Zero Carbon compliant’ – either now… tomorrow… or in ten years’ time?

In short, it is likely to take considerably more than £2bn of investment to ensure that half of all journeys in towns and cities are cycled or walked by 2030, and there is no mention anywhere of the current baseline for this metric (and therefore the degree of ambition involved).  Expecting this level of behaviour change to happen a decade ahead of world class cycling and walking networks - coming to a town near you by 2040 - seems hopeful at best.

While on the topic of money, DfT’s plan remains silent on a few key financial questions, which include:

  • The impact of the proposed cut to air passenger duty for domestic flights.
  • Parking policy, pricing and revenue hypothecation as a possible financial and travel behaviour change (mode shift) instrument.
  • The relatively slow pace of adoption of Ultra Low Emission Zones in all major UK cities.
  • Fuel duty having been frozen for the last decade and therefore not playing an active role as a financial instrument that could drive behaviour change.
  • Phasing-in some form of alternative road user charging mechanism to recognise the reality that car tax revenues will decline (under current arrangements) as vehicle tailpipe emissions reduce over time – limited to an oblique reference to ensuring that ‘the tax system encourages the uptake of EVs and that revenue from motoring taxes keeps pace with this change’ on page 103 of the Plan.
  • Public transport fares, the potential for greater public coordination of bus services outside of London, and National Rail services nationwide, to reduce fares (rail fares are 37% higher now than in 2011 and bus fares rose by an average of 60% in that time), improve affordability, and enhance the attractiveness of services relative to private car options
  • Any form of scrappage scheme (and ideally one graduated by the emissions of scrapped vehicles) that would incentivise fossil-fuelled vehicles being taken off the road altogether.

It will be important for Government to remember that paying for transport system decarbonisation need not be an ‘affordability’ question, in the conventional sense, but instead reflects a series of important financial investment decisions that link economic growth opportunities with (in some cases existential) opportunity costs.

"In five year's time...you might just prove me wrong"

In summary, and unsurprisingly, questions remain – most persistently over whether the proportional allocation of finite public sector budgets matches the ambition of the plan.

A further complication is the ability (and capacity) of local authorities, their consultants and road/rail infrastructure delivery bodies, to design and deliver the kinds of high-priority public transport and dedicated cycle route options that people will genuinely choose to use.  If this is a stumbling block, then it might be time to simplify the business case and appraisal process for transport schemes that demonstrably align with the objectives of the national transport decarbonisation plan and afford them a non-bid-based source of funding that is proportionate to the challenge at hand?

This approach would certainly help Councils like Bristol and Nottingham who have already set out their plans for achieving carbon neutrality.

It would be great to be proven wrong in five years’ time, when the first review of the Decarbonising Transport Plan is due, but for now the key questions that we would love to help Government, and its delivery partners to answer are:

  • How do we prioritise the wide range of interventions (perhaps based on Tonnes/Carbon saved per £ invested?) and then set long-term investment budgets/commitments accordingly?
  • Which of the interventions can be delivered fastest, and how do we expedite their roll-out across Great Britain?
  • How can we accelerate the design and delivery of cohesive active travel networks across our towns and cities so as to maximise opportunities for travel behaviour change in urban areas?
  • How do we apply the knowledge we have from successive Cycle Demonstration Town, Sustainable Travel Town, Cycle Ambition programme, Local Sustainable Travel Fund, and Active Travel Fund interventions to truly mainstream walking and cycling in all existing urban areas across Great Britain – as well as new developments and settlements?
  • How can we collaborate with established local bus/light rail and national rail operators to effectively fund and rebuild public transport systems so they remain relevant, reliable, rapid, environmentally sustainable and viable for generations to come?
  • How do we bring public, business, industry and other stakeholders along on the journey?
  • Where will the money come from to pay for these investments, and are the alternative outcomes even remotely palatable?
  • Where is the energy coming from to propel an electrified mobility system, and how will we ensure it is available in the right places and at the right times? How quickly can we develop net zero trajectories and interim targets for every transport mode – including domestic and international maritime and aviation services – and which sectors might need to become ‘carbon negative’ in the event we can’t get some of them to zero in time (or ever)?

If you are interested in learning more about how ITP could assist with your work to decarbonise transport systems in your area, or just to comment on this article, then please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.