The fight of our lives

The past eight years have been the hottest in recorded history. Despite achieving an historic breakthrough on a new "loss and damage" fund, COP27 failed to move the dial on reducing emissions.

We are nowhere near the scale of change needed. As the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it: "We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing."

Global emissions from transport are expected to grow at a faster rate than from any other sector as people and goods travel further than ever. Transport is responsible for a quarter of global carbon emissions and is the biggest polluting sector of the UK economy.

Transport emissions in the UK are just 3% lower than they were in 1990. It is very important to understand why so little progress on decarbonising transport has been made and what we can do to turn things around.

The central question

"What would be a credible and politically deliverable framework for the decarbonisation of transport that will deliver the necessary emissions reductions in the shortest time possible whilst mitigating any negative social impacts?"

That is the central question that the Pathways to Net Zero series of reports and roundtable discussions sought to answer.

The "shortest time possible" is driven by the science. The urgency of the climate crisis has significantly narrowed our options: 60% of fuel supply and half of the surface transport decarbonisation required by 2050 needs to have happened in this decade if we are to be on track for net zero. Currently only 2% are driving with plug-in cars. We won't decarbonise in time if we rely purely on greening the fleet. Traffic reduction will also be needed.

A "credible framework" must therefore start by acknowledging that the transport sector on its own cannot achieve net zero. We need a whole-systems approach that reflects the shift to digital connectivity, and the integration of transport with land-use planning, energy, green finance and all the trip generating sectors of the economy such as such as health, education and employment. Collaboration across sectors will be key.

We must prioritise carbon reduction and move beyond narrow frameworks of cost-benefit analysis. We should apply a net zero test for public policy to ensure cross departmental alignment, and that government sticks to the least-cost path towards net zero. A reform of appraisal is needed. We are still disproportionately focused on time savings, but people don't "save time" they just travel further. We need a wholesale reform of motoring taxation.

Energy efficiency and energy demand reduction are critical for achieving net zero. Progress to improve the efficiency of new vehicles has been largely offset by their increased use, and the trend to larger vehicles. We must avoid rebound effects. We must also seek to reduce embedded carbon including in all the transport infrastructure we are building. We must make more efficient use of existing assets, such as increasing car and charge point sharing.

The climate crisis is a massive market failure that stems from our overuse of fossil fuels, stimulated by our inability to price properly for carbon. Carbon pricing and taxes are a powerful way to incentivize lower carbon choices and can also generate revenues to help mitigate social impacts. The overall impact of a carbon tax can be progressive depending on what is done with the revenue raised. Personal carbon allowances should be explored.

We need to reform funding and governance so that local leaders can plan for housing, jobs and transport on an integrated long-term basis with net zero at the heart of decision making. Bidding for individual pots of funding is inefficient and militates against the joined-up approach needed. Planning and transport should be better integrated. We are still building business parks and dormitories – not places – and locking in car dependency.

The electoral cycle presents inbuilt challenges for the net zero agenda. Everything must be seen through the prism of political deliverability. We need consistent messaging to build the mandate for tough decisions for the long term. Some form of constraint will be needed to change travel behaviour and the best way to do this is likely to be through pricing. There is a role for communities and deliberative democracy in educating the public, but ultimately strong leadership from government will be needed.

Linked to political deliverability is the imperative to mitigate any negative social impacts. Our current transport system is not fair. Over past 20 years the cost of motoring has fallen in real terms whilst the cost using public transport has risen. EVs tend to be bought by people on higher incomes, people on lower incomes are less likely to be able to afford a new car or have on-site parking. A more socially equitable approach to net zero would involve greater emphasis on walking, cycling, micro-mobility and local public transport.
If the transition to net zero is not designed to be fair and just, it won't happen. The energy crisis is reducing carbon consumption but not in a progressive way. Government has (belatedly) launched a public information campaign to save energy and is ramping up efforts to improve home insulation. Given that the cost of living has become such a critical issue, it is challenging for government to use pricing as a lever. But a way forward on this issue must be found as some form of carbon pricing or rationing will surely be unavoidable.

Radical solutions needed

According to the IEA, the world is already two thirds of the way to the 1.5C target. Climate Action Tracker calculates that the world is heading for a dangerous heating of 2.7C by 2100.

It is too early to say whether the war in Ukraine will be a help or a hindrance in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The "dash for gas" threatens to undermine the Paris agreement but alongside short-term measures designed to shore up energy security many governments are doubling down on investment in renewables and looking to accelerate structural changes. The IEA's World Energy Outlook 2022 suggests that the global energy crisis can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure future.

We will not succeed if we just green business as usual.  Radical solutions are needed. Our whole economy needs to change. We must reduce energy demand and price properly for carbon whilst ensuring equity and social justice are at the heart of the transition. The central proposition of Pathways to Net Zero is that we need a whole systems approach which will require a paradigm shift in terms of how we think about decarbonising transport.

Claire Haigh is Founder & CEO of Greener Vision, a not-for-profit organisation committed to encouraging the switch to a greener future. Pathways to Net Zero: A Series of Reports & Roundtable Discussions was published on 12th December 2022.