Decarbonising Transport: Some Reflections

Claire Haigh
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What impact will Covid-19 have on efforts to tackle climate change? The delay to COP26 makes sense, but the priority for the next UN climate summit must be to ensure that economic recovery is built on low carbon infrastructure. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that “we have a responsibility to recover better than after the financial crisis in 2008”.

For the transport sector the pandemic presents an existential crisis. The lockdown has meant that passenger trips have fallen off a cliff. In the longer term the risk is that Covid-19 will accelerate structural changes already underway in the economy. What impact will an increased shift to home-working and online shopping, for example, have on bus and rail companies already suffering from the impact of changing work patterns and retail habits?

From a decarbonisation perspective, any fall in transport emissions as a result of the lockdown will be short-lived if the pandemic does long term damage to public transport. Rising demand for car and van travel is one of the main reasons why transport emissions remain stubbornly high and why it is the only sector to have increased emissions over the last carbon budget. Public transport has a critically important role to play in decarbonising our transport system.

In its immediate response to Covid-19 the Government has demonstrated that it recognises the vital importance of public transport both in keeping a reduced time-table of essential services running in the short term, and to stimulate and level up the economy in the longer term. In its policy paper Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, it is notable that DfT lists “accelerating modal shift to public and active transport” as the first of six strategic priorities for its forthcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

Against this backdrop, the conclusions of a recent Transport Knowledge Hub workshop may provide useful insights to help inform policy makers navigating the challenges of decarbonising transport. Leading academics presented on what would be a credible and politically deliverable framework. The growing urgency of the climate crisis, and its disproportionate impact on the poorest in society, requires us to decarbonise rapidly and at scale whilst mitigating any negative social impacts. Some key themes emerged from the discussion:

  • We need a total reformulation of transport pricing – The external costs of transport should be internalised. We must give more attention to prices and taxation and reverse the decline in fuel duty.   The subject of Professor Stephen Glaister’s presentation was a joint paper Funding Transport[i] which is published today by the Transport Knowledge Hub.
  • Public and shared transport must be central to decarbonisation – Transport is a universal service obligation. No citizen can participate in our society unless they have access to transport and every citizen has a basic human right to live without a car. Public transport provides a more efficient way of moving people both in carbon and movement terms.
  • We must reform the current appraisal system – Our current framework for analysing public investments is on the basis of cost benefit analysis which looks at individual projects. However, we need a low carbon road, rail, air integrated system. This will require us to prioritise carbon reduction and appraise total packages of policies, not single schemes.
  • Digitalisation will drive the entire economy – Digital connectivity has grown massively in terms of gaining access remotely to people, goods, services and opportunities. Digitalisation will drive the entire economy in the future, and our system of regulation needs to be redesigned to reflect that and to overcome the silos of government nationally and locally.
  • Technical solutions will be insufficient – We need to think fundamentally about travel demand. Over the last 10 years the grid has decarbonized by 50% and renewable fuels have delivered 78% carbon reduction compared with fossil fuels. However, only 0.7% of cars are electric and only 4% of fuels in cars are renewable. Behaviour change will be essential.

Technical solutions have long been central to Government policy. Whilst these remain important, it is encouraging that in Setting the Challenge there is now a clear recognition that decarbonisation of transport will not happen without behaviour change and that reduction in car use must be a priority: “We want public transport and active travel to be the natural first choice for our daily activities”. Once the immediate crisis of Covid-19 has passed, this presents a major opportunity for the public transport sector to engage with Government and help shape the Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

[i] Funding Transport by David Bayliss, Stephen Glaister and Tony Travers, March 2020

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