In launching the COP26 UN climate summit earlier this week the Prime Minister made it clear that he personally intends to keep the UK in the vanguard on this agenda.
Huge responsibility rests on UK shoulders. COP26 is a pivotal event which will establish whether the international community is able to agree on a pathway forward to avoid catastrophic climate change. As host the UK has a major role to play in setting the course which will determine the world’s future.
The stakes could hardly be higher. The last decade has been the hottest on record. Global greenhouse gas emissions must fall by around 8% every year to 2030, but there is no sign even of emissions peaking in the next few years.
As a nation we are going to need to dig deep. This year we must show the kind of international leadership that resulted in the first ever legally binding Climate Change Act in 2008. This will require that we keep our own house in order.
Having been the first major economy in the world to legislate to end its contribution to global warming by 2050, the UK now urgently needs a credible plan. The Committee on Climate Change warns that plans are significantly off track, and nowhere is radical action more urgently needed than in transport.
Transport has become the largest emitting sector of the UK economy accounting for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is the only sector to have increased emissions over the last carbon budget. This increase is largely the result of rising demand for car and van travel.
We need a major switch from private to public transport.
This is not only vital to reduce carbon emissions. The disbenefits of our current transport system become painfully more apparent by the day.
Rising demand for private transport is increasing congestion which is forecast to cost the UK economy £30 billion a year by 2030. Congestion is not just a drain on the economy – it kills. Air pollution largely from road traffic is linked to 40,000 early deaths a year. Car dominated sedentary lifestyles are a major factor in our growing obesity epidemic and have exacerbated the loneliness epidemic. Growth in car use at the expense public transport networks has undermined communities, increased social exclusion and heightened levels of deprivation.
As the predominant mode of public transport bus must be central to decarbonisation. A double decker bus can take 75 cars off the road. Even small changes in travel behaviour can make a big difference. If everyone switched just one car journey a month to bus it would mean one billion fewer car journeys on our roads and a saving of two million tonnes of CO2 every year.
Buses are leading the way on the road to zero. Over the past decade there has been a revolution in clean bus technology with progress in the bus sector greatly outstripping the car sector. Last year more than 4% of new buses in the UK were zero emission at the tailpipe compared with less than 1% of new cars. A modern diesel bus produces fewer toxic NOx emissions overall than a modern diesel car despite having 20 times the carrying capacity.
Investment in bus must also be at the heart of clean growth strategies. We must support the kind of economic growth that will improve the quality of life for all, not growth at any cost. Investment in our bus networks supports jobs and UK manufacturing and delivers inclusive and sustainable growth.
A 10% improvement in bus service connectivity is associated with a 3.6% reduction in social deprivation. 400,000 bus commuters are in better more productive jobs as a direct result of their bus service. 80% of urban buses sold in the UK are built in the UK compared with just 13% of new cars.
We need the forthcoming national bus strategy to maximise the many wider benefits of bus and to reduce emissions from road transport. This strategy will not only require a step change in bus investment but also measures to reduce car use.
Not taking steps to effectively manage is no longer an option.
Of course we must invest more in sustainable transport but to bring about the kind of change we really need, Government must pull the big policy levers. The key challenges for decarbonising transport are political not technological, because success requires there to be fewer vehicles on the roads. We must break the dominance of the car.
Firstly, we must get the price signals right. For example, fuel duty should be raised. The freeze in fuel duty since 2011 has had serious unintended consequences such as a 4% increase in traffic, 4.5 million tonnes of CO2, 200 million fewer bus journeys and 60 million fewer rail journeys.
Instead of building new roads we should make better use of our existing roads through demand management measures such as the work place parking levy and city centre entry restrictions.
Finally, we must avoid falling into the trap of thinking electric cars are a panacea. Whilst they have a role to play, they do nothing to solve the central problem of congestion which dramatically worsens pollution and will only be addressed by some form of road pricing.
There are signs that radical interventions could become more politically acceptable.
It is very encouraging that some local authorities are including restrictions on diesel car use in their plans to tackle air pollution. A recent DfT survey showed that three quarters of the population believe we should reduce use of motor vehicles for the sake of our health. And around the world Extinction Rebellion and the School Strikes have created the space for Governments to take bolder action on climate change.
For the first time ever, we have a Prime Minister genuinely committed to buses. What better way could there be for the PM to demonstrate that the UK means business than to put a national bus strategy with massive investment in zero emissions buses at the heart of its Transport Decarbonisation Plan?