The road to tackling climate change

The Court of Appeal decision on Heathrow exposed that aviation national planning policy is not fit for purpose to tackle rising carbon emissions from transport. However, the same is true of the National Networks National Policy Statement (NNNPS) which is the over-arching planning policy framework for the development of nationally significant road schemes. These are mostly strategic roads (the roads run by Highways England) but can also include other large road schemes.

The NNNPS was written prior to the Paris Agreement and the Government’s new target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – exactly the same criticism that was accepted by the Court of Appeal in the Heathrow case. While the NNNPS acknowledges the benefits of shifting traffic from road to rail and other sustainable modes, it then does little to deter increasing road traffic and emissions. Indeed, if anything the NNNPS downplays the impact new roads will have stating;

“It is very unlikely that the impact of a road project will, in isolation, affect the ability of Government to meet its carbon reduction plan targets…”

And goes on to state:

“The Government has an overarching national carbon reduction strategy (as set out in the Carbon Plan 2011) which is a credible plan for meeting carbon budgets. It includes a range of non-planning policies which will… ensure that any carbon increases from road development do not compromise its overall carbon reduction commitments… Therefore, any increase in carbon emissions is not a reason to refuse development consent, unless the increase in carbon emissions resulting from the proposed scheme are so significant that it would have a material impact on the ability of Government to meet its carbon reduction targets.”

This makes it easy for the Government to dismiss any increase in emissions caused by a road scheme as a tiny proportion of the national whole, ignoring the cumulative effect of the whole roads programme in driving up traffic and emissions.

Yet the Committee on Climate Change has criticised the Government’s lack of progress on tackling climate change, while surface transport emissions have risen over the past 5 years, and are higher now than they were in 1990.  This would suggest that the Government does not have a credible plan to reduce emissions from transport and that new road building is helping to fuel that increase.

We think the NNNPS is challengeable on the same grounds as Heathrow. We were already seeking legal advice prior to the Heathrow decision, and this highly significant ruling has simply increased the urgency and clarified the issues. We are a very small and new organisation with little funding and do not take the thought of legal action lightly, but it is important that the national policy statement for road transport is up to date. It should acknowledge and uphold the latest developments in climate policy and law and that is why we have written to Grant Shapps calling on him to take action to address these issues.

Not only is roads planning policy not fit to tackle the climate emergency, but neither is the Department for Transport’s (DfT) roads appraisal system. This number-crunching process analyses a scheme’s benefits (mostly time savings) and its costs (which include environmental impacts such as increases in carbon emissions). This produces a benefit-to-cost-ratio (BCR) to show how much benefit there will be for every £1 spent. Minister’s use the DfT’s appraisal process to make decisions on whether schemes represent good value for money and justify the environmental harm.

In theory ministers will only approve schemes with a high BCR, i.e. a high economic benefit. However, the DfT’s appraisal process has long been criticised for over emphasising miniscule time savings, whilst devaluing the environmental impact, including that of carbon emissions. For example, the economic value assigned to carbon emissions often comes out very close to the amount of fuel duty that the Treasury will receive from the extra traffic caused by the road, cancelling out any negative economic impact of such emissions! This effectively neutralises any incentive to avoid carbon intensive developments such as new roads. This faulty appraisal process inevitably gives ministers the BCRs that roadbuilders want them to hear, with the environmental and the climate impacts almost always ignored.

Whilst we have an out-dated NNNPS and a biased appraisal process we will see more roadbuilding and rising emissions from road transport. It is critical that the NNNPS and the DfT’s appraisal system are both updated to reflect the Government’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, and the importance the public attach to tackling climate change.


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