In many ways the Transport Decarbonisation Plan is ambitious – but promises for 2050 are easier to make than immediate actions

Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Select Committee, pictured in May at the launch of a campaign to get more people back on public transport. Let us see some ministers visibly on public transport

It is, I suppose, a sign of progress that a word very few had heard of 20 years ago is now the subject of a major and eagerly awaited government document.

The government has boldly called it “the world’s first greenprint to decarbonise all modes of domestic transport by 2050”. Wow. No ifs and buts about that.

This is not actually the first government document to address the idea. It was 10 years ago that I launched in the House of Commons a policy paper for local transport called Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon. I wanted to put the carbon bit first, as I saw that as a precursor to growth, but in the amicable horse trading that was part of the coalition, Philip Hammond, then transport secretary, insisted on putting growth first. To my mind, he was turning Lennon-McCartney into McCartney-Lennon. But still, I don’t suppose it made that much difference.

Incidentally, I see that Philip has just landed a job advising the Saudi Arabian government. That will certainly bump up his bank balance, if not his street cred.

The good news is that the ambition in the government’s decarbonisation paper goes further than any of us might have dared hope, and it would be difficult for even the most “fundi” green to be too curmudgeonly about it.

So why am I only cautious in my overall response, holding back the fulsome praise, and not cheering from the rafters?

Call me cynical, but to make radical promises for 2050 is a good way to gain some brownie points from electors … and one that involves minimal political risk

Call me cynical, but to make radical promises for 2050 is a good way to gain some brownie points from electors concerned about the environment, a good initiative to wave at other nations when they gather in Glasgow later this year for COP 26, and one that involves minimal political risk.

After all, neither Grant Shapps nor any of his ministerial colleagues will be in government in 30 years’ time. Many will even have departed the earth, and I don’t mean in Richard Branson’s carbon-busting spaceship.

Just look at the recent roll-call of ministers who were in the Department for Transport between just five and 10 years ago: Philip Hammond, Theresa Villiers, Mike Penning, Justine Greening, Patrick McLoughlin, Simon Burns, Stephen Hammond, Susan Kramer, me… the list goes on. None are ministers now and few are even in the Commons.

I note that the Labour Party described the strategy as “a long time coming but barely worth the wait”. A Lib Dem member in the Lords offered the view that it was a production “infected with Boris’s fairy tale optimism”. Another remarked caustically that we don’t want more reviews and strategies, but some decisions.

It is certainly true that the strategy needs to be looked at, not simply in terms of the intended 2050 outcomes, but whether those outcomes are realistically achievable, and even more importantly, whether decisions being taken now by government are consistent with the 2050 goal of net zero emissions from the transport sector.

While human ingenuity should never be underestimated, there is a rosy assumption in the strategy that technological advances will get us to net zero, while at the same time allowing us to carry on pretty much as we are now, with technology having eliminated the downsides of transport. We will still do what we are doing now, but do it differently, as the transport secretary puts it.

It is, of course, politically convenient to assert that we can realise big gain with no pain. It is also somewhat questionable.

Nowhere is this truer than the promises on aviation, a particular love of Grant Shapps. The transport secretary has a pilot’s licence and even has his own plane, which for some obscure reason he chose to register in the United States.

Jet Zero is a slick and catchy phrase, so credit to whomever thought of that, but can we really expect the promises in the strategy of net zero domestic aviation emissions by 2040, and net zero overall by 2050 to be met? This sounds like pie in the sky.

Battery technology is coming on in leaps and bounds but as things stand, I am not sure I would be entirely comfortable boarding a flight with hundreds of others on a battery powered plane.

The strategy refers to aviation using “sustainable fuel”. What does that mean? If it is referring to biofuels, there is a question as to how sustainable that will be, and an even bigger one about the capacity to secure the huge volumes of fuel that would be required to replace kerosene.

But perhaps the clue is in the phrase “net zero”. Is the government going to allow the use of kerosene to continue provided it is offset by lots of tree planting? If so, that is really business as usual to all intents and purposes.

The ambition for road vehicles seems more realistic and achievable. Setting clear dates for the end of legitimate sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles, including HGVs, gives industry a clear roadmap which they should be able to follow. The government needs to ensure, however, that domestic manufacturers benefit from the switchover, and we do not simply gift the Chinese a huge opportunity.

The intention to ensure all 40,000 government vehicles are zero emission by 2027 leads by example. This is actually an enhanced commitment, as previously 2030 had been the date scheduled for this achievement.

The government needs to be doing much more to encourage modal shift to public transport, for social and economic as well as environmental reasons

Yet it is not simply enough to try to green existing forms of transport without also seeking to influence the share of journeys each form of transport commands. The government needs to be doing much more to encourage modal shift to public transport, for social and economic as well as environmental reasons. Congestion on our roads will not be alleviated by making every vehicle electric.

The strategy document states that “we must increase the share of trips taken by public transport, cycling and walking. We want to make these modes the natural first choice for all who can take them”. A laudable sentiment, but where is the follow through?

To use an old English phrase, ‘fine words butter no parsnips’. Or to use a more modern American one, ‘where’s the beef’?

The reality on the ground is that that objective is now further away than it was at the start of 2020. The government’s pandemic messaging to “avoid public transport” has led many to conclude not only that public transport is unsafe, but perhaps even uniquely unsafe. While thousands of unmasked people attend the Euro final at Wembley, or Wimbledon, or now night clubs and pubs, we are still exhorted by many to wear a mask on public transport where the risk of viral transmission is vanishingly small. Indeed, the Office of National Statistics recently concluded that there was no more risk in going to work by public transport than by using your car. Those who advocate mask wearing uniquely for public transport, like the London mayor Sadiq Khan, say they are doing it to give passengers confidence. What they are actually doing is reinforcing the false belief that public transport is unsafe. Meanwhile, the RAC is warning of “an unprecedented summer on UK roads”.

Decarbonisation must be given a kick start now, and I am more interested in 2021 than in 2050

Decarbonisation must be given a kick start now, and I am more interested in 2021 than in 2050. Let us see some ministers visibly on public transport themselves, rather than hiding behind the operators. Let us see an end to the destructive 10-year freeze on fuel duty which has kept motoring costs down while bus and rail fares have rocketed. Let us see the abandonment of the vast bulk of the absurd £27bn road-building programme which, if enacted, can only encourage more modal shift from rail to road.

The recent Which? report comparing train and plane showed very clearly that for most journeys, flying is cheaper. So we have fiscal signals that encourage cars and planes and discourage buses and trains. It is almost the case that the more carbon you emit, the cheaper it is to travel. And while rail fares are being forced up above inflation, the government is looking to cut Air Passenger Duty, the only tax on flying. There is of course no duty payable on kerosene.

Nor is there any overt mention in the decarbonisation plan of the need to move to road pricing, which if well designed can be a slick way to reduce carbon emissions. The Centre for Policy Studies calls this the “big omission”.

There is to be a consultation on reforming BSOG (Bus Service Operators Grant), presumably to repay mileage rather than fuel used. Great, but why has this not been done already? It has been talked about for years.

There is a promise of a “sustainable programme of electrification” for the railways. Yet at this point the pipeline of schemes is drying up, the Midland mainline project is ludicrously stopping at Market Harborough, and the Treasury is baulking at further investment in what it regards as the Department for Transport’s bottomless rail pit.

We are promised year-on-year targets for modal shift to rail, but wait, this is to be the responsibility of Great British Railways who of course will have no control over the perverse incentives to use car and plane.

So let us applaud the decarbonisation plans for 2050, but let us now have an active decarbonisation plan for 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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