Wales leads world on tackling transport carbon

Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Climate Change, announced on Valentine’s Day that the Welsh Government will curtail harmful and unnecessarily expensive road schemes. This represents a landmark turning point in tackling climate change. The Welsh Government is clear that it will still build roads; just not in the traditional traffic generating and over-engineered way of the past (or if you are in England, Scotland, or indeed most other places, of the present).

While this might seem like common sense in a climate and ecological emergency when you need to stop making things worse, most places are continuing to build new roads regardless. There have been a few exceptions. In Austria, the Government halted several construction projects on climate grounds in late 2021. While in Germany, the Government said it wanted to prioritise spending on rail over road. However, despite fare offers to get people back on public transport and larger cities investing in cycle infrastructure, most countries are still failing to reduce transport emissions quickly enough. So from that perspective, Wales is truly a world leader.

The journey to this momentous decision

It has taken a while to reach this point, and things ostensibly started in 2015 with the passing of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.

The need for a net-zero target was recognised in 2019 and the Welsh Government published a new transport strategy in March 2021. This set an ambitious target for 45% of journeys to be made by public transport, walking and cycling by 2040 (up from 32% in 2021). With the need to reduce carbon emissions by 63% by 2030 (on 1990) levels, its Net-Zero Wales Carbon Budget 2 report went further, seeking a 10% reduction in car miles by 2030.

Recognising the need to re-allocate spending if it was to have any chance of meeting these targets, in June 2021 the Welsh Government commissioned an independent panel of experts to review 55 road schemes. The panel submitted its report last year and the Welsh Government, to its credit, has accepted most of the panel’s recommendations and critically, their approach to future road investment.

Any new road scheme will now have to pass four tests:

  • To support modal shift and reduce carbon emissions. This is about ensuring that future roads investment does not simply increase the demand for private car travel. Instead, we need to deliver schemes that contribute meaningfully to modal shift, which will require different approaches in different parts of Wales.
  • To improve safety through small-scale changes. Safety on the road network must be paramount. Investments for safety should focus on specific safety issues to be addressed (rather than wider road improvements and increases in road capacity). Speed limits should be considered as one of the primary tools for improving safety.
  • To adapt to the impacts of climate change. Climate change is already having an impact on our road network and is likely to become an increasing issue in future decades. Road investment can be justified to adapt for these circumstances to ensure roads can continue to function and contribute meaningfully to modal shift.
  • To provide access and connectivity to jobs and centres of economic activity in a way that supports modal shift. In particular, new and existing access roads will be necessary to connect new developments, including Freeports, to the existing network. The location of new developments needs to be consistent with Future Wales / PPW11, which includes the principle of maximising the opportunity of access by sustainable means and should be designed to prevent ‘rat-running’. 

In developing schemes, the focus should be on minimising carbon emissions, not increasing road capacity, not increasing emissions through higher vehicle speeds and not adversely affecting ecologically valuable sites.

The task now is to develop and implement effective measures that improve walking, cycling and public transport so that they become a genuine transport choice for more people. This is going to be a challenge with the Welsh Government’s shrinking budgets but it cannot be shirked if people are going to realise that there are viable alternatives to driving.

New roads were never going to be a realistic option in many places, not least because there wasn’t the money, even before Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget and record inflation. This new approach could benefit more areas than would have been previously possible, through its focus on easy to implement and cheaper alternatives.

Internationally there is much that could be learned from Wales’ experience, particularly by its near neighbours. In England, the Department for Transport remains in denial about road building and despite not having a credible pathway to net-zero, continues to make things worse, running down public transport while increasing traffic and emissions. Yet it has the opportunity to start turning things around with the budget next month. Will it have the courage to follow Wales, or will it chicken out and hope that nobody notices that its head remains buried in the sand?

We have written to Jeremy Hunt to urge him to prioritise investment in public transport and active travel, not new roads. Please join us by writing to him and Rishi Sunak today.


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