The 2019 General Election - transport now central stage in climate crisis

6th Dec 2019

Whatever the outcome of the General Election, across all parties, addressing climate change is a theme.


Although often referred to as the Brexit election, it is also one could argue the first climate election. For every party there is now, more than ever before, a much sharper focus on the interplay between decisions on transport and the impact those choices have on our climate. But will words translate into action?

The United Nations recently warned the climate crisis is close to a ‘point of no return’. Now the UK Government – and governments around the world - must show they are serious about meeting their obligations. At the recent COP25 – at the UN Climate Conference meeting in Madrid - the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres said: “We are confronted now with a global climate crisis’. When Glasgow hosts the Climate Conference next year (COP26), the world will be looking to hear more positive messages.

‘Climate emergency’ was the word of the year for 2019 according to Oxford Dictionaries; alongside many governments and EU Parliament, half of UK Local Authorities have declared one. Pressure on governments, across the world, to act on climate change has accelerated considerably since the UK published its Climate Change Act in 2008.

In the 2008 Act the Government was required to set five-yearly carbon budgets, twelve years in advance, from 2008 to 2050. The Government is required to consider, but not follow, the advice of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC, also created under the 2008 Act) when setting these budgets. Recent advice from CCC flagged concerns to government that, unless further progress is made by the transport sector, future carbon budgets may not be met.

Surface transport is the largest-emitting sector in the UK, accounting for 23% of UK emission and emissions have not significantly reduced in recent years.

The headline target of the 2008 Act was amended in June 2019 to reflect the Government’s net zero ambitions. The aim is to meet the 2008 Act’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 100% (net zero) - by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. To understand how the steps to net zero are delivered for surface transport it is fascinating to look at the forecasts by the CCC.

The scale of the challenge is immense: emissions from transport are not falling and we are already behind the curve on action required. Relying on improved emissions will not be anywhere near enough what is required, and the changes in behaviour will need to be significant balanced against the changes we have seen in the past.

CCC provided a challenging, but achievable, scenario to 2030: real-world conventional vehicle efficiency improves by 37% on average for new cars, 33% for new vans and by 24% for new HGVs relative to 2010 and electric vehicles reach around 60% of new sales for cars and vans. They also offered a ‘Max’ scenario indicating that it was technically feasible that even greater reductions in emissions could be made.

Whilst a supply of low-carbon technologies and fuels is crucial to reducing emissions from transport, individual behaviour can also affect emissions - from choosing to avoid a journey, choosing a lower carbon mode or altering driving style. In March 2019 the policy paper ‘Future of mobility: urban strategy’ stated that walking, cycling and active travel must remain the best options for short urban journeys and mass transit must remain fundamental to an efficient transport system.

The CCC, using the National Travel Survey (NTS), identified a set of car trips that might be amenable to switch to a lower carbon mode. This analysis suggested that 24% of car trips with the shortest length, representing 5% of car kilometres, could be switched to bus, cycling or walking given the appropriate policy support and investment. Around 26% of urban trips could be shifted away from the car compared to only 16% of rural trips.

CIHT launched a Climate Pledge to spur action by individuals and organisations and in doing so recongise solutions to the climate emergency rest with individual behaviour and wider system changes. CIHT believe the highways and transportation profession is key in helping achieve the net zero carbon emissions target that has been set in the UK – but needs support from Government to do so. Sue Percy, Chief Executive, CIHT said: “CIHT calls for the new government to invest in highways and transportation infrastructure to realise the opportunities the sector offers in addressing climate change.”

The decisions we make now will have an impact on our future carbon emissions. CIHT’s guidance ‘Better Planning, Better Transport, Better Places’ provides advice on improving the integration between planning and transport. CIHT will work with the new government to embed this guidance within the planning and transportation sector to push the concept of good places and help reduce carbon emissions.

Now is the time to act and if we get this right, we can deliver wider benefits to major public policy agendas. Significant health and well-being benefits can be delivered by thinking about our transport systems holistically. To do this: walking, cycling and active travel must become attractive options for short journeys.

Even with efforts to mitigate climate change, there is a significant challenge of adapting our infrastructure to the effects of a changing climate. 

The issue of climate change and the future of the transport sector will be discussed in depth at CIHT’s Spring Conference 2020. Find out more and register your interest here.

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