UK transport decarbonisation cannot ignore the growing global climate crisis

Anthony Rae 17th May 2024: It’s quite understandable to see ‘transport decarbonisation’ as the biggest component of the UK climate crisis, requiring the attention of British politicians as they compete to become the next government. Transport – all the modes (including aviation), and international as well as domestic, now constitutes some 36% of the UK carbon budget; at the halfway point of the 60 year period set by the Climate Change Act for total emissions to reach Net Zero, it had made no progress whatsoever reducing below the 1990 baseline set by the Act; and it’s not therefore at all surprising to learn that this policy sector makes up 70% of the ‘policy gap’ across all emissions sectors where government has yet to adopt measures capable of delivering that 2050 Net Zero target.

But how does this affect the global climate crisis? Across all countries transport represents a smaller proportion of total emissions – around 20%, says World in Data (and you can see its constituent parts and evolution over time to 2070 in this graph – but globally it’s electricity and power generation that is the much bigger problem; of course many deprived countries need to increase the quantity of power they can generate sustainably to meet their needs.

It matters for maybe two reasons. First it’s quite likely that the global climate crisis is accelerating, and although headlines such as these do not have the same status as an IPCC report – World’s top climate scientists expect global heating to blast past 1.5°C target Guardian 8th May 2024the fact that the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan has chosen to exclude taking account of the cumulative erosion that excessive and undiminishing annual transport emissions causes to the UK carbon budget therefore has a corrosive impact on the global one as well.

Secondly the policy steps that the UK takes, or alternatively doesn’t, do have an impact around the world. The Climate Change Act was a world leader in 2008; and at the time of Glasgow COP26 in November 2021, the UK submitted the most ambitious of the ‘nationally determined contributions’ across the G20. But in transport the UK is setting a bad example internationally, specifically in its approach to aviation where it promotes unsustainable expansion of passenger demand, sole reliance on technological solutions to the sector’s emissions which will have little or no impact for the next 10-15 years, and all this greenwashed with messages about ‘guilt free flying’.

The Department for Transport boasts that it advocates this approach strongly in international forums like ICAO. So challenging this irresponsible approach in the UK to ‘decarbonisation’ that is anything but that has a significance internationally as much as  at home.