We need to talk about transport

Photo by Aron Van de Pol on Unsplash

Climate change is high on the agenda these days, but why is all the focus on emissions from power generation, while transport gets a free ride?

Climate to the fore 

If you were strolling through Parliament Square yesterday you couldn’t help but feel that politics in the UK is currently alive and kicking, and it’s no longer all about Brexit. Extinction Rebellion have arrived, forcing themselves to be heard and seen. Inside Parliament 16 year old Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg was addressing a packed room full of politicians, media and concerned citizens. She spoke in her inimitably direct style, of how her generation’s future has been stolen, how the current incumbents of Westminster have not done enough and of the need to employ ‘cathedral thinking’ – taking action now before we know every detail of the final design of the solution.

It was a strong speech that pulled no punches. What was striking in the questions and answers that followed, however, was that despite the scale of the challenge Greta presents, a few totemic issues still appear to dominate the audience’s concerns. The Heathrow expansion, the Swansea tidal lagoon, on-shore wind, solar power, fracking - these were all raised as issues that prove the Government can’t be serious about tackling climate change. Whilst these are all important campaigns they are not the metric by which we should be measuring progress. Emissions from the power sector have fallen sharply in the UK thanks to a suite of sustained government policies. While protestors took to the streets over the Easter weekend we saw the longest ever sustained period of coal free electricity generation in the UK – not bad for the home of the industrial revolution.

Where we need to be focusing our attention and demanding more firm, sustained Government interventions is on transport – the biggest source of both greenhouse gases and the polluted air that is damaging our health.

Transport is flying under the radar

Data from the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) suggests that 27% of our greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 came from transport, making it by far the most significant emitter in the UK. Almost of our improvements in vehicle efficiency have been outweighed by increases in miles travelled, especially among light goods vehicles. Even more worryingly, this data is incomplete, as it does not take into account emissions from international aviation, shipping or imported goods, so the actual impact of transport is even higher.

On a national, and indeed an international level, we must move to zero-emission transport. There are plenty of strong policies that will allow innovation to flourish, such as the zero-emissions vehicle mandate in California that made Tesla a global leader, or government support systems that have seen almost 60% of new cars sold in Norway be zero-emission. We need support for electric vehicles that will not simply subsidise the wealthiest in buying beautiful second cars, but will help lower-income citizens gain access to the benefits of these cheaper forms of transport. We need policies to ensure that public transport and (once they arrive) autonomous vehicles can be used easily and cheaply by all, which requires ensuring that data for all modes of transport is openly accessible rather than held only by incumbents. We need policies to speed up rail electrification (long overdue), to tackle emissions from heavy goods vehicles, shipping (very doable) and international aviation (difficult but not impossible).

Focusing on transport

These policies, and more, must be debated by politicians and the public if we want them to be put in place, but right now our climate debate does not seem to be engaging with transport sufficiently. The government is relying on inadequate policies such as an unlegislated commitment to a 2040 ban on the sale of cars with internal combustion engines, which is hardly likely to make a serious dent by 2030. The main policies to impact greenhouse gas emissions from transport in the short term are city policies such as London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, and they’re not even targeting carbon dioxide.

Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are succeeding in making themselves heard – but they need to ensure they capitalise on the opportunity this present by focusing on the issues that need the most urgent attention. In the UK that means sorting out transport. Michael Gove was the Government Minister present in the room to hear Greta’s speech, and he indicated the Government would be meeting with the protestors. If they want to make an impact they should make sure it is Chris Grayling who is required to meet with them, not Michael Gove, and have their list of demands ready. We’d be delighted to provide some specific suggestions.

Photo by Aron Van de Pol on Unsplash, with thanks to Matthew Spencer