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Is the Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan up to scratch?

16 July 2021
Is the Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan up to scratch?

This week (14 July) the Government published its long-overdue Transport Decarbonisation Plan. Last spring, they had published a document setting out the challenge we face in meeting the targets for reducing carbon emissions from transport.

Ahead of responding to the consultation, we asked our supporters what they would like to see from the final plan. Unsurprisingly, top of the wish list were: improved public transport services, better walking and cycling infrastructure and more convenient electric vehicle charging. So did the Plan deliver?

Cleaner vehicles

There are world-leading commitments on transitioning to cleaner vehicles. Already committed to ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 and hybrids by 2035, the Plan announced the government will consult requiring all new medium-sized trucks to be zero emissions from 2035 and larger lorries from 2040. A proposed ZEV mandate would require manufacturers to sell a certain proportion of zero emission vehicles. There is also a comprehensive delivery plan for the roll-out of new vehicles and charging infrastructure.

These are all welcome measures, as cleaner vehicles will indeed play a significant role in driving down transport carbon emissions. However, by itself it won’t be enough. Fossil fuel vehicles purchased before the phase-out dates will remain on our roads for years, even decades afterwards. Cleaner vehicles will also do nothing for reducing congestion and road danger. That’s why modal shift for both passengers and freight will also be essential.

Modal shift

While launching the Plan the Transport Secretary was at pains to say that people’s lives won’t change much: “We will still fly but in more efficient aircraft, using sustainable fuel. We will still drive, but increasingly in zero emission cars”. The good news is that – by contrast – the Plan itself recognises the need for modal shift and to reduce how much we travel, as well as how we travel. It reiterates the government’s ambition for public transport, cycling and walking to be “the natural first choice” for people.

Yet there seems to be an overreliance on some of the changing habits during the pandemic sticking, rather than actively promoting behaviour change going forward. Without any specific traffic reduction and modal shift targets to promote action, even the reforms proposed in the National Bus Strategy and the Plan for Rail may not result in significant change.

There is a welcome return of Local Transport Plans as a tool for promoting action at the local level. Going forward, funding will be made conditional on local authorities delivering “ambitious quantifiable carbon reductions in transport”. However, there are many authorities with little political will to promote sustainable transport or with limited resources and expertise to implement the measures needed, so much greater support will be needed for those who may lag behind.

Pricing

The best way to support a transition to cleaner vehicles and a shift away from private cars to greener modes is by adjusting the pricing signals. It makes no sense that fuel duty has been frozen for years while bus and rail fares continue to increase, even when we need to do all we can to encourage people back on public transport.

As well as root and branch reform of rail and bus fares and ticketing, reviewing the current vehicle taxation system is also needed if we are to prevent electric vehicles making driving even cheaper relative to other modes. The government’s own forecasts estimate that if we electrify without addressing taxation, road traffic would increase by 51 per cent between 2015 and 2050. We are encouraged that this is recognised in the Plan but there are no details on what that reform may look like. We believe there must be a clear plan to transition towards distance-based road pricing as a way to support the transition to cleaner vehicles and greater use of public transport and other green modes.

Infrastructure investment

There are also mixed messages in relation to the government’s spending on transport infrastructure. The plan defends the roads investment programme: “in any imaginable circumstances the clear majority of longer journeys, passenger, and freight, will be made by road. (…) Continued high investment in our roads is therefore, and will remain, as necessary as ever”. It was good to see that “almost half” of the £27 billion is expected to be spent on maintaining and upgrading existing roads and on active travel and noise and pollution mitigation schemes. But this still leaves a significant amount to spend on new traffic-inducing road capacity.

Significantly, the government has committed to reviewing the National Policy Statement (NPS) on National Networks – the outdated framework used to determine applications for new roads – in light of the government’s new net zero policies. However, this is expected to take years and the government has not followed the example of their Welsh colleagues who have frozen all new road building projects while a review of their compatibility with net zero commitments is carried out.

So while this is an ambitious and comprehensive plan and there is much that we are happy to welcome, it needs to translate to specific interim targets and actions to deliver them. We’ll also be looking forward to the Spending Review and hope that the Chancellor commits to rebalance investment and taxation incentives away from road and driving and towards more public transport and other green modes.

Blog by Silviya Barrett of Campaign for Better Transport