COP26: Transport Emissions: Is the Government Asleep at the Wheel?

The government must rethink its transport spending priorities if it wants to get on track to net zero.

Traffic jam, M25
The UK’s roads are busier than ever. Traffic jam, Essex. Photo by N Chadwick on Geograph (CC BY 2.0)

Transport is now the UK’s largest greenhouse gas emitter — since 2016, it has produced more emissions than even the energy sector. This is because the energy sector has cut out coal and shifted towards renewables, while the transport sector is still largely powered by petrol and diesel. The largest component of this is cars — despite improving fuel efficiency, total emissions from cars have flatlined, falling just 5 percent since 1990.

Fuel efficiency gains have been counteracted by a consistent increase in motor vehicle traffic, which has accelerated in the last ten years. This has risen from 255 billion vehicle miles in 1990, to 328 billion in 2018.

In 2019, transport CO2 emissions per capita were estimated to be higher in the East of England than any other UK region, at over two tonnes per capita annually. London’s transport sector, by comparison, emits less than one tonne per capita, due to the widespread uptake of public transport.

Greenhouse gas emission by sector
Greenhouse gas emission by sector 1990-2019 (BEIS, 2020). Licensed under Open Government Licence.

Cash for cars?

How have we allowed this to happen? It seems that government policy has effectively incentivised car travel, relative to public transport. Rishi Sunak backed out of a fuel duty increase this year, meaning that it has not increased for twelve consecutive years. This is hard to justify as a means to tackle the cost of living crisis when National Insurance contributions are being raised instead. Furthermore, the government continues to spend heavily on road projects, while allowing train season ticket fares to soar above those of our European neighbours. It is unsurprising that road traffic is increasing when annual rail ticket prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation.

While infrastructure spending is undoubtedly important, making the right choices is vital. A Department for Transport review found that increased road capacity tends to induce further demand – as road travel becomes more efficient, more people will make more frequent and longer journeys. Thus, road expansions are likely to lead to more greenhouse gas emissions and may even fail to reduce congestion in the long run, as more drivers to take to the road.

Transport emissions: the view from East Anglia

In the East of England, over £26 billion was recently earmarked for local and strategic road upgrades in the latest budget. It is true that not every journey can be made on public transport, but we should consider whether new road projects are truly essential. For instance, in Essex, the government is set to spend over £1 billion on widening the A12, to ‘ease congestion’ between Chelmsford and Colchester. A direct 20-minute train service already runs between the two cities, so why not ease congestion by encouraging people to take the train instead?

Part of the problem is that a return train ticket between the two cities costs £14.70 – over twice what the petrol for a comparable return journey could cost. It is therefore understandable why some commuters are reluctant to take the train — perhaps the £1 billion would be better spent on subsidising rail fares, to take cars off the road.

Rail travel
Would we be better off subsidising rail travel than investing in new roads? Photo by Matt Buck

What about electric cars?

Some might argue that electric cars should be prioritised instead, and so road infrastructure should still be a priority. But the pace of transport decarbonisation is too slow to meet our net zero targets alone, so we should focus on managing demand, according to climate change professor Kevin Anderson. While electric car sales have increased significantly in recent years, they still constitute less than a fifth of new cars. Furthermore, a 2035 ban on new polluting vehicles means there will still be many polluting vehicles on the road well into the 2040s.

Progressive policies

Where there is political will, however, there is an alternative. Earlier this year, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford took the bold decision to halt all new roadbuilding projects. This was hailed by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, whose role is to hold the government to account on behalf of future generations.

Similarly, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has recently expanded the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) area eighteenfold, meaning more polluting vehicles will be charged for entering the region. The resulting income will then be reinvested into public transport. Khan has thus secured a triple-win for Londoners: the policy will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save thousands of lives per year in reduced air pollution hospitalisations, and reclaim the streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport. Such a policy may not be feasible everywhere, but similar policies could be considered by smaller cities across East Anglia.

Other leaders should take note, should they wish to reap the benefits of bold, forward-thinking policies.

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