Many local authorities and the UK Parliament have declared climate emergencies over the past year. Yet what has changed? On the surface, nothing, and the more cynical would suggest that many of the declarations were made to keep protesters quiet, with the councils having little intention of doing much. Indeed a number have then approved new roads, sometimes in the same meeting!
While it appears that some local authorities have acted cynically, it would be unfair to tar all with the same brush. Yet for an emergency, the wheels of local government grind extremely slowly. Just look at the ‘urgent’ action being taken to tackle air pollution – nine years after the deadline passed for nitrogen dioxide levels to be within legal limits, many areas still suffer illegal pollution levels and will until 2025 (15 years after the deadline).
What hope do we have then when it comes to tackling climate change? We don’t have the luxury of 10, let alone 15 years before we act. We’ve only got about the next 5 years to make some drastic changes or we will exceed our carbon budget and face very expensive upheavals to meet the net-zero carbon target by 2050. A date that is already being questioned as too conservative and likely to be brought forward.
The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has produced a useful tool which shows the carbon budget for local authority areas. It also allows you to work out the carbon budget for a combination of areas or regions and shows the levels of cuts needed to get to net-zero carbon before 2050. The model assumes all new car sales are electric from 2035, but indicates we would also need to see a dramatic reduction in traffic, 40 – 60% to meet these targets. Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth’s research shows a minimum of 20% traffic reduction by 2030, based on fully electric new car sales from 2030 (which we are not on target to achieve). They vary because of the slightly different assumptions behind them, but the clear message is that sizeable reductions in road traffic are required and soon.
The Tyndall Centre research shows that we need to deliver carbon cuts of around 13% year on year. If we continue emitting carbon at 2017 rates, we only have around 7 years carbon budget left. This demonstrates the urgency.
So why then do we see in the latest round of announcements about the Housing Infrastructure Fund that new and widened roads take the lion’s share of investment? Even more significant is the £25.3 billion promised for the next Roads Investment Strategy and a further £3.5 billion for the Major Roads Network. All that’s on top of many local road schemes funded by local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships. We know new roads create new traffic and increase carbon emissions, so why are we pouring good money after bad making the situation worse? We are set on a course which is making the transition to net-zero even harder.
The problem is the Department for Transport (DfT) and its fixation with planning for ever increasing traffic levels. Regardless of what research is saying, it justifies new roads on the back of its traffic forecasts which show traffic growth between 17 – 51%. It completely ignores the need to cut traffic, because to acknowledge otherwise would end its road addiction: the case for new roads would evaporate overnight.
This is the problem facing places like Arundel, where Highways England is trying to bulldoze through a dual carriageway predominantly on the grounds it needs to accommodate future traffic growth. The need to reduce traffic isn’t even considered and Highways England ducks its responsibilities by hiding behind its instructions from the DfT.
Whatever Government is elected on the 12th December, it has got to get to grips with the DfT. The Department’s actions are actively undermining national priorities on health, social inclusion, the economy as well as climate change and threatening important environmental assets. The Department has clearly gone rogue; only urgent reform can pull us back from the brink.