UK ministers undermine own pledge to cut emissions

UK ministers sought advice to protect road-building, day before net zeRo transport plan

Secret briefings revealed as part of a High Court challenge [1] against England’s £100bn roads programme [2] undermine UK pledges to cut emissions, say campaigners.

The documents show that the day before publishing the Transport Decarbonisation Plan [3], ministers sought advice from officials about “minimising the chilling effect on road building and completion by 2023”. Despite the Plan purporting to “reduce emissions across all forms of transport”, days later ministers committed to “keeping road emissions stable in the medium term” [4]. This was despite transport being the biggest UK emissions source, of which road travel contributes 91% [5].

Transport Action Network (TAN) is challenging Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps’ decision this July not to suspend the 2014 national roads policy, pending a slow-moving review [6]. The policy creates a legally binding “presumption in favour” of road-building in England’s planning system and effectively prohibits objections on climate grounds. Decisions on 20 major road schemes, including the £8bn Lower Thames Crossing and the A303 Stonehenge tunnel, are due before the review completes in 2023. The Department for Transport has identified obtaining planning permission as the greatest threat to its programme.

Chris Todd, Director of Transport Action Network said:

“Despite the public appetite for climate action being stronger than ever, these staggering revelations show the gap between politicians’ words and actions is as wide as ever. By shamelessly keeping high carbon policy in force for four years after putting net zero into law, ministers are trying to oil the way for massive road building. Their addiction to asphalt knows no limits.”

“Throughout COP26, the UK presidency has promoted electric vehicles as the solution to slashing transport emissions, despite traffic reduction being needed to meet urgent climate targets. Behind the world leading PR, these internal emails and briefings show the Department for Transport is resisting significant modal shift in order to protect its roads programme.”

The case highlights sharp divergence between the UK’s nations. Last December, Scotland committed to cut traffic by 20% by 2030, while this summer Wales introduced a road-building moratorium pending an independent review [7].

Professor Phil Goodwin, Emeritus Professor at University College London and University of the West of England, said:

“With surface transport emissions having been largely stable since 1990, it is hard to understand quite how ministers think this can continue. Scotland is seeking to cut traffic by 20% to deliver radical reductions in emissions. To meet its climate targets, England is likely to require similar action, which would make increasing road capacity unnecessary. A road-building moratorium pending an independent review like Wales is now surely the right way forward.”

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith said:

“Our client has what it considers well-founded and serious concerns that the current policy framework for roads development is unsound. Without suspension of that policy, and clear guidance for decision-makers in respect of tougher targets on carbon and road emissions, the Government has created a gap in the law, which, as our client argues, must be rectified.”

Chris Todd, Director of Transport Action Network concluded:

“Days after the Prime Minister called on the world to “get real” on cars, it’s time the Government looked in the mirror. 

“Across the world climate campaigners are challenging Autobahn expansion and Amazonian road-building. With the world’s eyes on the UK, it’s time for Grant Shapps to show real leadership. He could make a start by catching up with his Scottish and Welsh neighbours.”


Notes for editors

[1] R (Transport Action Network Ltd) v Secretary of State for Transport and Another [CO/3011/2021] was filed before the High Court in September. TAN is represented by Rowan Smith at Leigh Day solicitors, David Wolfe QC (Matrix Chambers) and Peter Lockley (11 KBW). NB This part of a suite of strategic climate litigation and is a separate case to TAN’s legal challenge of the second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), for which the Court of Appeal is considering an appeal application.

[2] See figure 3.2 in RIS2 Efficiency Review – ORR’s advice on Highways England’s Draft Strategic Business Plan for the Second Road Investment Strategy. Housing Infrastructure Fund and additional long-term funding for local authority road-building brings this up to £100bn up to 2035.

[3] The Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) was published on 14 July 2021:

[4] TAN cannot disclose the briefings themselves but the DfT’s summary grounds of resistance can be found online: as can our statement of facts and grounds:

[5] See page 5 in:

[6] Written Ministerial Statement of 22 July 2021:

[7] Scotland announced its target to cut car traffic in December 2020:

Wales announced a moratorium on road-building in June 2021:

The review has the following terms of reference:


Signing up will allow you to access our monthly newsletter and the latest actions and events