What is the ‘Transport Decarbonisation Test’ and why does it matter?

Members of the Environmental Transport Organisations grouping (ETOs) – a coming together of transport campaigners from across the North of England – may have their own particular transport mode preoccupations but they are united by their concerns about the failure of transport to so far to achieve any degree of decarbonisation despite the fact that it’s the law of the land that this should be happening.

From 2017, in our engagement around Transport for the North’s initial strategic transport plan (STP), we suggested that its initial failure to include a 2008 Climate Change Act-compatible commitment to  decarbonise transport was a major failing, possibly even rendering the STP unlawful. To its credit TfN eventually accepted these arguments, paving the way for their ground-breaking Decarbonisation Strategy in 2021. In recent years, as the impending general election crept closer, we discussed the problems of transport decarbonisation but now a national scale. The dramatic reversal of the electoral polls in October 2022 was transformative in terms of which party might be in power in the critical (for climate change) second half the 2020s. Noting that 4 out of the 5 MPs making up the Labour shadow transport ministerial team have northern constituencies prompted the idea of raising these concerns with them – and, of course, wider. Hence the preparation of our new Analysis Report and shorter Issues Briefing: Will Labour fail its transport decarbonisation test?

What is that ‘test’? The term ‘transport decarbonisation test’ has been devised for this project; it’s not part of any formal  government policy assessment.  The Issues Briefing  provides this summary definition  – How from their first days in government will Labour set and then implement a transport emissions reduction pathway and policy framework which ensures that critical decarbonisation targets that have to be reached by 2030 will actually be achieved? The report’s examination of the issues relating to transport decarbonisation – principally relating to the roads (66% of transport emissions) and aviation sectors (23%) divides the test into a list of 55 questions. Each question about a particular decarbonisation topic provides relevant data and background information, policy analysis and sources.

But the ‘test’ is best better understood in terms of its factual components – as you’ll find described in the first 2 pages of the Issues Briefing – and also its policy implications. Particularly:

– Transport’s baseline emissions in the year determined by the Climate Change Act  – 1990 –  were 153 million tonnes CO2e – and at that time, 18% of the UK carbon budget. But by the time we reach the halfway point in the 60 year net Zero period to 2050, transport emissions hadn’t actually reduced at all, in fact had increased above the 1990. At the same time most of the other UK emissions sectors had been getting on with doing what the CCA required – so, yes, at the midpoint UK emissions have indeed reduced by about half so transport’s share has now doubled to 36%. The roads emissions ‘sub-pathway’ will track down over the 2030s but not by enough because traffic demand is increasing, and the aviation pathway ends higher in 2050 than it was in 1990! And what would happen if these pathways faltered in any way in their delivery? Could that potentially destabilise the Climate Change Act itself?

– Why has this happened? The argument of the report is that the policy stances of those two emissions generating sectors – roads and aviation – have been set by the DfT over recent decades without regard for their emissions consequences for the CCA. The report goes into the detail of how that works. For example the procedures set up under the Planning Act 2008 (which actually came into force on the same day as the CCA did) prevent the testing and determination of a new road scheme, or an airport expansion scheme, in terms of their carbon impacts.

The analysis report concludes that it’s more likely that Labour will fail the transport decarbonisation test than pass it.

Why does that matter? In the UK, if the largest emissions sector fails to reduce sufficiently as a matter of policy then the future of the national decarbonisation process is threatened. Immediately the failure of DfT policy to respond to ‘climate risk’ or delivery risk relating to its proposed policy ‘solutions’, must be contributing to successive court judgements in 2022 and now 2024 finding the government’s Net Zero Strategy unlawful. If Labour forms the next government it will be in charge of the third attempt construct a lawful NZS and, if the failed roads and aviation policy frameworks are kept in place, then that will challenge in the courts again. And fail again.

Internationally the global climate crisis is accelerating. The evidence (recorded in report: page 30 and endnote 156) is that the UK will not meet its pioneering NDC commitment to reduce UK emissions by -68% by 2030 (it will fall short at -55%). The fact that the DfT’s transport decarbonisation plan chooses to ignore the cumulative erosion of carbon budgets caused by excessive annual transport emissions affects the global crisis as well as the UK one.