After years of (too) subtle hints about the Government’s road building programme, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has strongly recommended a Welsh-style roads review for England. Its 2023 annual progress report to parliament was pretty damning, but especially so on transport. It tore into the lie that we can decarbonise fast enough using technology and electric vehicles (EVs) alone, stating: “There is already a clear case for demand-side policies to reduce emissions. These should be implemented now, as a core part of the decarbonisation strategy, especially on …reducing air and car travel.”
This is about as strong as it gets from the CCC and, as the Government’s own climate advisor, its advice carries great weight. For example, its advice was a key consideration in the successful legal challenge to the Government’s Net-Zero strategy. The CCC’s stance on road building and demand management vindicates the work and legal challenges that we (Transport Action Network) have taken over the last three years.
Lack of confidence
The reason the CCC is calling for a review is obvious, given its “confidence in the UK meeting the 2030 NDC [Paris Agreement target] and the Sixth Carbon Budget (2033-2037) has decreased since last year”. Other sectors are also struggling to decarbonise, so it is no longer credible for the Government to rely on them to make up transport’s shortfall. Meanwhile the planet is burning or drowning in floods, and has likely seen the hottest week on record as even the sea is breaking temperature records.
Electric vehicles not enough
While electric vehicles (EVs) are being rolled out at pace and the percentage of new electric car sales is higher than expected, this is offset by the fact that car sales overall have fallen. In contrast electric vans sales have stalled while van and HGV mileage is increasing. So while electrification will be important in reducing emissions, eventually to near zero, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The CCC also highlighted that the Government “risks missing an opportunity to incentivise manufacturers to reduce the size and weight of vehicles.”
In the meantime, building new roads will increase traffic and emissions across the road network at a faster rate than would happen otherwise. Those who are advocating new roads claim that the road emissions are a small percentage of overall emissions and can be ignored. Yet if you took this approach you would never reduce anything anywhere. The truth is that emissions from new roads could be significant, adding up to 20 million extra tonnes of carbon dioxide and wiping out most of the gains from electric vehicles as Transport for Quality of Life calculated for RIS2 in 2020. This is in the context that “Surface transport remains the UK’s highest-emitting sector, contributing 23% (105 MtCO2e) of total UK emissions in 2022.”
The idea that the need for traffic reduction is just in the minds of a few “extremist eco-groups” and “anti-car activists”, as some commentators are depicting, is clearly nonsense. The need for traffic reduction has long been espoused by many in the transport profession and promoted over many years by the CCC. Even the RAC Foundation has acknowledged it would be near impossible to reduce emissions quickly enough by electrification alone.
A benefit of this approach, as highlighted in last year’s progress report, was that “Demand-side reductions can also lead to emissions savings across the economy, by lowering the amount of electricity needing to be generated and reducing the number of electric cars that need to be manufactured.” This could lead to substantial cost savings.
Further vindication and concerns
Yet the CCC is seriously concerned that: “The Government has made no progress on our recommendations on clarifying the role for car demand reduction and ensuring that key enablers (road-building decisions and taxation) are aligned to delivering this. While there have been some positive signs …these have been balanced by negative developments including delays to local transport plan guidance and cuts to the active travel budget” which it says must be restored. This vindicates our legal challenge to the walking and cycling funding cuts. The CCC is also worried about “…public transport service provision, reliability and cost” highlighting that: “From 2010-2021, bus and rail prices increased by 80% and 43% respectively, significantly faster than inflation (Figure 4.9). By contrast, the cost of car travel rose by just 27%”.
Sustainable solutions losing out
The money being wasted on new roads, is money that is then not available to invest in sustainable solutions to improve public transport and active travel and reduce carbon emissions more quickly. This was something highlighted by the CCC on fuel duty where the decision “not to uprate duty in line with inflation is estimated to cost £4.8 billion in 2023/24 and amounts to a Government subsidy for driving. This money could have been used to support more sustainable modes.”
Other points of note are that the CCC welcomed the Welsh roads review and recommended that Scotland needs to draw up a plan to outline how it will deliver 20% fewer car-km by 2030. In England, the CCC welcomed the DfT’s draft National Policy Statement for road building but said that “…the draft statement needs to be clearer on the network’s role in reducing traffic growth rather than simply meeting the demand projected in the Core NRTP scenario.”
Overall, this year’s progress report feels like it is marking a significant moment. We are at a critical juncture and decisions taken now could have a profound impact on whether we meet our international obligations and once again show leadership on reducing carbon emissions quickly enough.
JOIN OUR NETWORK
Signing up will allow you to access our monthly newsletter and the latest actions and events