Three recent news items should ring alarm bells for everyone working in transport. The first was a leaked report from the IPCC. The second was the Climate Change Committee's annual report to parliament. The third was the resignation of Health Secretary Matt Hancock; how that relates to the other two I will explain below.
The IPCC report, leaked to a French news agency, contains no surprises for anyone who follows the science of climate change. This conservative body, whose predictions have often underestimated the speed of climate change, is now saying that "unliveable heat", mass starvation and coastal "cities menaced by rising seas" are likely to happen as early as 2050. This interactive map (from an NGO) illustrates the extent of the flooding threat to Britain.
The UK's Climate Change Committee is another conservative body (led by a Conservative peer), which has generally sought to avoid conflict with government, but whose language has been strengthening in recent years. Their 2021 report to parliament was complicated by COVID-19, but the central message is clear. The climate crisis and the law demand "a step change in Government action, but it is hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen in the last 12 months." Surface transport emissions fell by 18% last year and aviation by 60% but these falls were temporary and expected to rebound.
In surface transport, that has already happened. Since lockdown restrictions were eased (in England) on May 17th UK traffic volumes have averaged 100% of pre-lockdown levels, despite millions remaining on furlough or working from home. The hopes of some commentators that flexible working would herald a new era of sustainable travel have (as I predicted) proved unfounded.
The Climate Change Committee's past reports were most reticent on aviation, a reticence which was queried by its own advisory board. The law now requires the UK to cut its emissions by nearly two-thirds by the 2030s, prompting the Committee to revisit its earlier recommendations. The three biggest policy gaps illustrated on page 25 of the report are in: carbon capture and storage (CCS), diet and aviation. The government's CCS policies and targets fall a long way short of the Committee's optimistic scenario, which relies on CCS to offset aviation emissions. The government has promised to publish a "net zero aviation strategy" before the COP26 conference this autumn. The Committee has now found the courage to speak the obvious truth to government: their strategy must include measures to manage demand and airport capacity. The timing of that strategy could be critical, as airports around the country are racing to expand before the policy changes. Southampton's application was approved in April, Leeds-Bradford is under review; Bristol's appeal against initial refusal will begin next month.
The report confirms what several analysts had already pointed out: the government's stated intention to phase out petrol and diesel (and hybrid) cars by 2035 is too slow. That timetable will require deep cuts in traffic volumes. Meanwhile, national and local government continue to plan and to build for traffic growth. As with aviation, many local authorities are indulging the fantasy that they can increase road capacity and reduce carbon-emitting traffic. (In an extreme example of this fantasy, South Gloucestershire Council is claiming that this massive road-widening scheme will reduce carbon emissions.) Meanwhile, a consensus within the transport professions is looking to resolve that contradiction through road pricing, currently being examined by the Transport Committee of the House of Commons.
I have explained before why these hopes about road pricing are probably misplaced. The concessions required to overcome political opposition would probably make motoring cheaper on uncongested roads, leading to more traffic and higher emissions. In a country like Britain, characterised by extreme inequalities, there is another problem, which brings me back to the hapless Matt Hancock.
The former health secretary presided over shambolic attempts to contain COVID-19, leading to one of the highest death rates in the world. He was criticised for serious conflicts of personal interest in the award of government contracts. He withstood all of those criticisms until he was finally compelled to resign – over a kiss. Why? Because the British public is enraged by the sight of leaders imposing rules, which they do not apply to themselves (as Dominic Cummings also discovered). This is the biggest challenge to measures which aim to change behaviour by making things more expensive. The elites who make the decisions can afford to maintain their profligate lifestyles regardless. It explains why any mention of demand management in aviation provokes a hypocrite hunt in the tabloid media.
After researching the sorry history of fuel taxes and road pricing in Britain, I wondered why the public revolt against some pricing measures, but meekly accept others, such as tobacco taxes and rising rail fares. There are several answers to that, but one factor, supported by research, is the proportion of the population affected. As 81% of adults have at least one car in their household, measures which tax all motorists require a lot of political capital.
So where does this leave us? For aviation, a carbon-rationing system, where everyone is given an equal and tradeable allowance, would have some obvious advantages. If elites want to fly more than everyone else, they would at least have to pay the rest of us for the privilege.
For surface transport there are no easy answers. We must act faster, and we cannot rely on electrification and road pricing alone. If political capital is limited, it would be better expended on raising fuel taxes, for now. The disadvantages of electrification could be mitigated if the number of vehicles is reduced as petrol and diesel are phased out. Scrappage schemes which incentivise people to give up car ownership (instead of buying another car) could make a useful contribution. So could traffic removal and car-free areas in cities. Above all, we have to stop making the problem worse. Transport planners may not make the ultimate decisions, but they can help to expose politicians, like the ones mentioned above, who are falsely claiming to reduce carbon emissions whilst expanding road capacity.
Steve Melia is a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England. His book, Roads, Runways and Resistance – from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion is published by Pluto Press.