The publication of the government’s plan for decarbonising transport becomes even more important in light of this – and begs the question, are the targets achievable within the funding and plans outlined? And perhaps more importantly, do those targets go far enough?
In the first of a series of articles in the run up to COP26, exploring the road to NetZero in the transport sector; Neil Taylor, Director of Transport Policy & Strategy at ITP, a company of Royal HaskoningDHV, delves into the details. 

The UK’s transport industry has been pushing the Government for guidance on how it intends to deliver on the legally binding target to achieve net zero carbon by 2050 since its original Decarbonising Transport Strategy was released. Now, 16 months later, we have a plan in our hands that brings much of the detail needed to understand how the Government currently foresees achieving its aim. 

In some of the key headlines you may have seen, the plan sets out a £2 billion investment that will be required to ensure that half of all journeys in towns and cities are cycled or walked by 2030; elsewhere it cements a proposed ban in Britain on new diesel and petrol lorries by 2040; and announces £3 billion worth of support and investment in public transport to ensure that people use buses, trams and trains over private cars. 

The document, developed with input from a range of public, government and industry stakeholders, shows an encouraging plan, but opens the floor to a lot of questions about its delivery, funding and timescales…

Accentuate the positives

But let’s start with the positives; the plan is refreshingly honest and progressive in areas, effectively link rising carbon emissions from transport to climate change, worsening air quality in towns and cities; and a host of social, health and economic inequalities. This acknowledgement, while perhaps overdue, is important in affirming the far-reaching nature of the crisis – and the importance of addressing it now.

Elsewhere the plan recognises that we will continue to learn the true scale of the challenge involved in addressing man-made climate change, and that some of the technological solutions needed to reduce carbon footprints from all transport modes to net zero by 2050 are yet to discovered and developed. 
It also appreciates the interconnectedness of many transport services – reflecting the reality of our everyday journeys – and recognises interdependencies between the energy, business, innovation, health and education sectors.

The missed opportunity

The formation of a Net Zero Transport Board is another encouraging highlight of the plan. It signals the Government’s intention to hold itself to account over the long-term aims and promises made – and the group’s broad mix of members and perspectives is constructive. However, the absence of representation from Network Rail, Rail Delivery Group, Highways England, and any key maritime or aviation industry bodies feels like a missed opportunity. 

Equally, the fact 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 and up for debate.

It feels as though a more cross-party approach could’ve gone a long way to ensuring this existential issue is baked-in to every political agenda and election manifesto for years to come – cementing that accountability and saving a lot of debate in the process.

Are we kidding ourselves?

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 – undoubtedly one of the key pillars in addressing the climate crisis. It also overlooks that the ‘climate emergency’ declared by many public authorities – and hammered home most recently by the IPCC’s sixth Assessment Report on the science of climate change – 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. 

To this end, the plan fails in places to grapple honestly with the reality of the crisis facing the nation and the world – often choosing to lead with what is considered politically and publicly acceptable, rather than a more clear, asserted vision.

A long way to go – but we can get there together 

In summary, and unsurprisingly, questions remain from the plan – most persistently over whether the proportional allocation of finite public sector budgets matches the ambition of the plan. It is likely to take considerably more than £2bn of investment to ensure that half of all journeys in towns and cities are completed on foot or by bike by 2030.  

In light of this, there is something to be said of doing more to involve and incorporate local authorities on the road to NetZero. Ultimately it is these authorities that will have to design and deliver the kinds of high-priority public transport and dedicated cycle route options that people will genuinely choose to use. 
Councils like Bristol and Nottingham have already published their Climate Change strategies – and in them they recognise the need for a change to ‘business as usual’ approaches; politely asking for more autonomy and funding to be devolved from central Government so that they can crack-on with delivering their plans and unlock local private sector commitments.

While leadership should come from government, the climate crisis involves all of us – and by doing more to collaborate with local authorities, public and private sector industry bodies; the door can be opened to greater ambition, vision and innovation.
In coming articles, we will be exploring the government’s 220-page plan in more detail, and within the context of other important conversations ongoing in the transport sector. We’ll be tackling topics from road networks and energy transitions to the question of finance and funding – in the hope of shedding light on the challenge ahead and what the government, public and private sectors can and need to do in order to reach that all-important goal of NetZero carbon by 2050.