Cutting transport carbon is a big ask


The transport industry is at the heart of economic activity but its heavy use of carbon has put the spotlight on its efforts to reduce emissions. So far they have been disappointing. The proportion of emissions in the European Union from transport have grown from a fifth to more than a quarter in the past two decades, earning it the unwanted accolade as ‘the worst performing sector under Kyoto’, according to the European Federation for Transport and Environment, as well as putting at risk global efforts to reduce carbon use.

 The problem is that for decades – or even centuries – economic growth has run in parallel with increased transport use. As people do more and spend more, they invariably end up travelling more and consequently using up more resources. As technologies improve with better and faster roads and railways, people have travelled further.

 Moreover, many societal trends have encouraged this. For example, giving parents more rights to choose their children’s school, or encouraging patients to go further afield for medical treatment both have important transport implications which are rarely considered when such policies are drawn up. Planning too, has centred around the notion that car ownership would be near universal, which turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. .

 Part of the failure to reduce emissions is that transport itself has become less efficient in many cases. People prefer bigger and supposedly safer cars, which has led to an increase in emissions per kilometre, a trend which has only just begun to be reversed as a result of European legislation. Even trains, supposedly environmentally friendly, have become less so as carriages have become heavier as a result of extra equipment such as air conditioning and safety measures such as crumple zones. A passenger on some new trains on long distance routes requires the equivalent weight of a Land Rover, which is why four people in a car on a motorway can use less fuel than a train passenger on the same route.  

 There are three main ways of driving down carbon emissions from transport: Adopting new technology, encouraging people to transfer to more environmentally friendly forms of transport and reducing demand. A variety of technological developments offer potential gains ranging from displays showing the next arrival at bus stops and wifi on trains to attract more people on to public transport, to more fuel efficient cars and road pricing using up to date IT.

 In many cases, though, change is not straightforward and requires investment. Electric cars, which have been talked about for decades, are now, at last, being encouraged by governments at the instigation of the EU, but there are still numerous technical and practical obstacles to their widespread use, starting with cost of the vehicles and concern about range to the installation of charging points and worries that the National Grid could not cope with the extra demand.

 Getting people out of their cars and into public transport, as promised by John Prescott, Labour’s first transport supremo following the 1997 election, has proved to be tough. You need both carrots, such as more reliable public transport, and better facilities for both walkers and cyclists, and sticks with increases in motoring taxes and better enforcement of parking laws. During Labour’s 13 years, rail fares rose faster than the cost of motoring despite Prescott’s injunction. 

 That was partly a result of the timidity of governments towards the powerful roads lobby backed by the tabloid media which is ready to scream that ‘a war on the motorist’ whenever efforts to curb car use are announced. Even relatively simple sounding measures such as reducing car emissions have come up against concerted opposition. Car manufacturers have long resisted attempts by the European Union to impose an average emission rate of 120gms per kilometre on new cars, arguing that this would be impossible to meet.

 There is therefore, no shortage of ways of reducing transport emissions but there is no shortage, either, of political and practical obstacles. Take increased taxes. Road pricing, which despite being successful in London, has become a political no-go area because of perceived opposition. Despite ministerial promises stretching back into the nineties that it would be implemented by now, there is no sign of nationwide road charging being put forward by politicians of any party because of their concerns worried that it would become a poll tax on wheels.

 Actually, there is more hope on the ground that things are changing with signs that at last economic growth is being decoupled from increased travel use. Car use has not risen in the past decade, and the steady increase that had been continuing since before the First World War had stopped even before the recession.

 Transport economists are at a loss to explain the cause, but rises in the cost of fuel – heightened by uncertainty – the greater use of the internet and the nightmare conditions on many roads are all thought to be part of the explanation. However, demand for rail has continued to rise, which explains why government investment is aimed at boosting rail capacity.

 The simplest way to cut transport’s use greenhouse gases, though, is to cut back demand for travel. Here the ambivalent role of transport in the economy comes into play. Transport, on the one hand, is seen as a necessary component of growth and therefore any attempt to reduce demand would be seen as detrimental to the economy. On the other, few journeys are undertaken for pleasure and people would largely welcome, say, having to travel less to work or to shop. Transport is seen as a necessary evil, but therefore ways of reducing it would be welcomed.

 Politicians are terrified of encouraging this debate. They see it as a given that growth and greater transport use go hand in hand and are prepared to shell out for new roads and railway carriages rather than questioning whether all this travel is desirable for society as a whole. There are plenty of ways of discouraging travel, from using market mechanisms by making it more expensive through higher petrol prices and train fares, or raising taxes on flying to ensuring that planning policies make it easier for people to access local services. Allowing sub post offices to close or encouraging schools to merge has enormous implications for local transport demand which is rarely discussed.

 Cutting back on transport emissions, therefore, can be done but it needs both the government and the industry to see this as a priority. There is no single technological or policy silver bullet, but there is a range of changes that can be implemented quickly if the will is there. But that is a big if.

  • Peter Hooper

    In my opinion, there are two things missing from this article :-

    – the need to continue the electrification of passenger and freight railways

    – the decarbonisation of the UK electric supply.

    France never had the benefit of North Sea oil, but has a far greater electric rail network for both HS and classic rail, plus it produces more than 80% of its electricity from nuclear power.

  • Tim Bott

    What I fail to understand is the need for so much travel nowadays given that so much can be done from home on the Internet.

  • I think you’re under-playing successive Governments’ policies on planning that aim to reduce the need to travel. This has been expressed most clearly in PPG13 Transport since the mid-90s, but also in PPG6 on retail and PPG4 on business. Reducing car dependency through land use planning is now orthodox thinking, although as you say, a principle that many public sector projects run counter to.

    However, the Coalition is now committed to a wholesale redrafting and slimming down of national planning policy in the name of localism and it remains to be seen whether the travel reduction principle survives the cull.

  • Peter Hooper

    ” four people in a car on a motorway can use less fuel than a train passenger on the same route”.

    I think there are 2 important points here as most cars do not have 4 occupants; I would suggest this is the minority.
    Also it ignores the point of what you do with your car when you get to your destination; where do you park it for a day or a week – car park or parking meter.
    Surely the major and ever increasing cost of parking charges should be factored into the motoring costs ?

  • Paul Holt

    The tone of this article is similar to a previous one ( and once again CW has missed the target, which is to remake the transport links broken by Beeching, thereby providing a viable alternative to using the car. This is a subject CW begins to address in another article ( but needs to be greatly widened. For example in Essex, where I live, there is the Braintree to Stansted extension (six miles of track), the Boreham Interchange station (on plans for at least 25 years and the subject of and reactivating the Epping-Ongar route and extending from Ongar to Chelmsford (part of the 1944 Abercrombie Plan). I’m sure other contributors can add to this list.

    Instead CW cheerleads more motoring taxes, which isn’t helpful.

    It would have been instructive for CW to have attended the Regent Street Concours prior to the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in November ( The veteran cars were joined in the afternoon by the eco-cars which had, that morning, set off from Brighton and made it to London on (typically) half a gallon of fuel. I noted (a point confirmed by all the drivers I talked to) that all the eco-cars were indistinguishable from any other car to be found in a typical car park with four seats, boot and controls in the right place. As James May might put it, they are the vehicles of tomorrow because they are so like the vehicles of today.