New roads accelerating climate change

After the delay to the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) it was logical to conclude that it wouldn’t make sense to press ahead with a massive road building announcement until after the NIS was published.  After all, would you order a carpet before you had designed the house? That’s why, and particularly after our letter had been sent to Grant Shapps on 5 March (which we’ve had no response to), The Times predicted the Government would delay announcing their second five-year Road Investment Strategy (RIS2).

However, the juggernaut that is the DfT’s roads building programme is harder to stop than that.  Despite the implications for roads of the Heathrow decision at the Court of Appeal, the DfT’s arrogance knows no bounds. No mention of Paris, no real assessment of carbon, but hey everything’s alright because we say so. In the real world, surface transport emissions are rising and are now higher than they were in 1990. They are a growing proportion of our total greenhouse gas emissions as other sectors make the cuts needed, while transport lags woefully behind.

So, it was a shock when the Government announced a massive £27.4 billion road programme in the Budget last week (even more than previously stated). Although a week later that pails into insignificance alongside the Corona Virus bailouts.

Included in this spending spree was at least £2 billion for the A303 Stonehenge scheme which would rip through the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The controversial Lower Thames Crossing was there at a mere £8.2 billion. Other controversial schemes include the A27 Arundel Bypass through the South Downs National Park, and the A5036 Port of Liverpool Access Road (which runs down the middle of Rimrose Valley Country Park).

The full list of schemes with maps can be seen in the published document (from page 93) although very little information on costings which is rather strange for an investment programme.

Most road projects lead to increased carbon emissions from both construction and extra traffic. Yet Highways England always manage to dismiss the carbon from new roads as so insignificant that they don’t need to worry about it.  But they have form in underestimating things they don’t like and while it might provide political cover at present, this line is not sustainable longer term.

The Government also says that even if this carbon was important it is easily compensated by other action that it is taking to decarbonise the sector. Yet other than looking to speed up electrification of the vehicle fleet, which is welcome, they have frozen fuel duty at a time of falling oil prices and continue to under-invest in sustainable transport solutions. As the Committee for Climate Change said in its 2019 Progress Report, the Government has delivered just 1 policy action out of 25 recommended by the Committee in 2018. So it’s record on delivery is far from assured.

Road transport accounts for 91% of the UK’s domestic transport emissions (not including international aviation), and rising.  So, it doesn’t take genius to see that encouraging traffic growth whilst waiting for fantasy techno fixes is clearly going to lead to a car crash in terms of climate change. Research by Transport for Quality of Life for Friends of the Earth shows that even accepting the most optimistic forecasts for new electric car sales (100% market share by 2030), we would still need 20% traffic reduction to reach net-zero by 2050.  Which in itself, knocks on the head any idea we need bigger roads.

In RIS2 the Government insists it is “not a question of reverting to an outdated approach of predict and provide”. However, it quite clearly is following the same, old business-as-usual approach by refusing to take measures now to reduce travel. It’s predicting future traffic growth, and it’s providing for it.

It’s clear the Government has not learned lessons from Heathrow or from their failure to reduce road transport emissions to date. It simply cannot ignore the new net-zero target and act as if it’s business-as-usual. It must start talking honestly about the need for traffic reduction and how this can be achieved. We do not have the luxury of relying on a fairy godmother coming along to sort out this mess. The Government needs to grasp the nettle and act now and scrapping the current roads programme needs to be the first step.

Photo by Quaid Lagan on Unsplash


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