To Save the Planet, We Have to Change How We Travel

The government's latest transport plan relies on new technologies to make how we travel today carbon neutral – but what we really need is to make climate-friendly systems like rail faster and more affordable.

A queue of cars in Surrey, England. Credit: David Tomlinson / Getty

The government’s Transport Decarbonisation plan has been long awaited in the climate world. Transport is a pivotal arena for climate action: it’s the UK’s biggest polluting sector, accounting for 27 percent of domestic emissions. The impact is even higher when topped up with international aviation and shipping.

Transport is also the only sector of the economy with higher emissions than in 1990. With the window of time to act on global heating already narrow, eleven years of Conservative government inaction has accelerated a significant problem into a full-blown crisis.

There was, therefore, great anticipation for the government plan released last week, especially as ministers are eager to showcase climate leadership ahead of COP26. But with unfortunate predictability, the document amounted to re-announcements of old funding and promises not backed up by policy. It also peddled the dangerous fiction that we can rely on unproven future technology and innovate our way out of climate breakdown.

There were certainly some welcome and eye-catching targets. There is a ban on sales of new fossil-fuelled vehicles after 2040, including motorbikes, cars, and heavy goods vehicles (pending consultation), which lays out a pathway towards an entire fleet of zero-emissions vehicles by 2050. There’s a commitment to electrify the rails by 2050. There was also a much stronger emphasis on active transport.

However, material policy and funding pledges rarely matched the warm words. The viability of electric HGVs, for example, has been lambasted as unrealistic by the Road Haulage Association. Electrified railways are all well and good, but pointless without encouraging more widespread use by making train travel affordable – something difficult to do while it remains in the hands of private providers. And ambition on paper to get people walking and cycling does not magic up the infrastructure that will make our towns and cities more liveable.

The targets for electric vehicles are particularly laughable when they sit alongside the government’s £27 billion road-building programme. Although this is set to be reviewed, it is still endorsed as ‘ambitious’ in the strategy. Emissions from these roads are likely to be 100 times higher than the Department for Transport have claimed. Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps would be better off looking west to the Labour-led Welsh government, which has recently suspended all future road building projects due to the climate emergency.

According to Professors Jillian Anable and Greg Marsden at the University of Leeds, ‘There are no future scenarios in which the UK can meet its carbon reduction milestones over the next two decades whilst car traffic is allowed to grow.’ And yet there were few commitments to reduce traffic and car usage in the Transport Decarbonisation strategy, with the government’s vision of the clean transition relying almost exclusively on the take up of electric cars rather than reducing private car demand.

A lack of structural awareness in favour of unrealistic appeals to future tech will mean the UK never achieves its lofty climate ambitions. As Professor Christian Brand at University of Oxford has argued, the race to net zero is slowed down by an obsessive focus on electric vehicles. The pace of change to swap out every fossil-fuelled car is far too slow, and he suggests that we must curb use of motorised transport altogether, especially private cars.

This is notable especially as electric cars still pollute by producing toxic particulates from tyre, brake, and road wear. There are also unanswered questions around just supply chains in electric vehicle production and the global availability of raw materials. Put simply, electric vehicles are far from a silver bullet. Instead, tackling air pollution and climate breakdown requires a fundamental shift to re-plan our towns and cities with greener, healthier infrastructure, including taking many cars off the roads altogether.

But no new money was pledged for active transport, instead rehashing commitments made in 2020. I wrote about the limitations of this funding for Tribune last February – it was too little money then, and it remains too little 17 months later, especially given the time lost to act on climate breakdown. The same £3 billion spending commitment on buses outside London was also repeated, falling drastically short of necessary ambition. A societal overhaul is required; the Tories are instead tinkering around the margins.

The statement released to celebrate the report last week made very clear the direction in which the government is heading: the strategy ‘is not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing the same things differently. We will still fly on holiday, but in more efficient aircraft, using sustainable fuel. We will still drive on improved roads, but increasingly in zero emission cars. We will still have new development, but it won’t force us into high-carbon lifestyles.’

This blind techno-optimism would be amusing if it weren’t climatically dangerous. The ‘Jet-Zero’ strategy is particularly worrying. The government is confident that domestic flights will be emissions-free by 2040 and Britons can continue flying as usual.

Meanwhile, the government’s own climate advisers argue that the top priority for decarbonisation is demand management, including a frequent flyer levy and restricting flights by blocking airport expansion. The CCC’s response to the Decarbonisation strategy noted ‘Meeting Net Zero will require action on demand for transport as well as its supply.’

The goalposts are brought even closer by the UK government’s ambitious decarbonisation target of 78 percent reduction relative to 1990 levels by 2035. But we cannot solve climate change with optimism.

The immediate scale of the crisis requires intervention to ensure emissions do not escalate, particularly as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. Although ambitious advancement in technology is crucial, without a concurrent focus on how we travel, the strategy appears to decarbonise only as far as technology can take us. The difficult elements of a modal shift—the altering of behaviours and building of green infrastructure—are left by the wayside. This latest government rehash lacks the imaginative or political leadership to bring that shift about.