Failed Policy Frameworks 1: Roads and decarbonisation

Anne Robinson 17th May 2024: In December 2020 2020 the Climate Change Committee established a pathway for annual total transport emissions that requires a reduction from 167.2MtCO2e in 2019 to 118MtCO2e by 2030: a reduction of 49.2 MtCO2e. In October 2021, and in response, the government Net Zero Strategy (NZS) adopted a slightly higher annual TTE target for 2030 of 121.5MtCO2e. But that target and associated trajectory was in fact an aggregate of two quite different emissions pathways. One for roads required major reductions in surface transport emissions led by the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) as a result of a phase-out of internal combustion engines (ICE) cars from 2030, which had just been accepted as government policy in November 2020. The other, for aviation, requested almost no reductions whatsoever in international aviation (and also shipping) emissions. In the next article on this page Anthony Rae writes about the extraordinary privileging of that sector. But first let’s look at the roads decarbonisation pathway.

In the first half of the Net Zero period 1990-2050 there was effectively no road transport decarbonisation whatsoever. The 1990 baseline (established by the Climate Change Act) of 109MtCO2e actually increased to 111MtCO2e by 2019, although in 2020 there was a reduction since due to Covid. As a result all the decarbonisation of this sector will have to occur within the next 25 years or by 4% per year when it has only managed to reduce by 4% over the last 30 years.

There is no specific pathway for road transport emissions in the government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP, so that for domestic transport will do is an acceptable proxy); the plan is to reduce emissions to 74MtCO2e by 2030 and to 38MtCO2e in 2035. To achieve such radical reductions, it relies on electrification of vehicles.

However, there is a downward policy spiral countering the benefits of EVs and worsening the climate emergency. DfT’s current road traffic forecasts predict increases of 22-54%, with no scenario compatible with reaching Net Zero. These  forecasts fuel, and are used to justify, the nation’s road building programme which would increase carbon emissions, potentially by 20MtCO2e between 2020 and 2032. Relevant policy, the National Networks National Policy Statement, has little or no regard for Net Zero. It prevents the carbon impacts of a proposed road being quantified and necessarily constrained to the required pathway. The transition to EVs will be too slow to counter these emissions and the Climate Change Committee and other expert analysts have demonstrated that reduction of vehicle miles travelled of up to 20% will be required.

There is another facet to this issue, also working in the wrong direction – cost; the cost of the roads programme and the cost of EV travel. Both should be of deep concern to any political party making ‘fiscal responsibility’ its priority principle. The DfT continues to bring forward additional road capacity at a substantial cost – around £3-4bn annually in the current 2020-2025 investment programme. In its last months, the government could approve road schemes totalling £16bn – Stonehenge A303, A66 North Trans-Pennine and the Lower Thames Crossing.

EVs will also make car travel much cheaper and lead to annual cost savings of £20bn largely accruing to the motorist. It is unclear if Labour’s ‘in principle’ block to increasing taxes applies to fuel duty which has been frozen since 2012. The major contribution that Fuel Duty makes to government revenue (~£28bn) is already being, and will continue to be, eroded by EVs which are fuel duty exempt.

If Labour forms the next government it will have to address both investment in infrastructure that is already jeopardising achievement of 2030 and 2050 Net Zero target and lost tax revenue – will it amend the climate change framework to put road transport emissions on an accelerated downward  path and clawback revenue to invest in buses and trains? To date, despite a commitment to revise the national planning policy statements mentioned above, there’s no indication that that is also going to require compatibility with Net Zero.  Labour’s mission for higher growth could well ‘bulldoze’ infrastructure plans through all that stands in their way.