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.

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