Transport is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and private vehicle use, especially car use, make up the bulk of transport emissions. Changes are needed to make walking, cycling and public transport more attractive to people than driving.
- Transport is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and private vehicle use, especially car use, make up the bulk of transport emissions. If the UK is to meet its own legal obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and more importantly help ensure global temperatures do not rise above 1.50C we need to rapidly decarbonise transport.
- Whilst electric vehicles have a role to play, they still run on electricity, emit dangerous particulates and promote sedentary lifestyles. Modelling suggests we also need to reduce private vehicle use between 20 and 60% by 2030 if we are to meet governmental climate change targets. This will require a radical and rapid change in UK transport policy to reduce car use.
- Changes are needed that make walking, cycling and public transport more attractive to people than driving. This is likely to include significant investment in sustainable transport modes, road space re-allocation and large reductions in funding for new roads. Fiscal levers to make public transport cheaper and increased investment in active modes, alongside reductions in ‘road’ spending, and making driving more prohibitively expensive, are also important. All of these measures need to be undertaken fairly ensuring people’s lives and transport choices improve, especially where transport alternatives to the car are currently absent.
- These changes will be even more challenging in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and current reductions in public transport capacity. It is certain however, that the climate crisis demands that we cannot return to pre-2020 levels of private car use, or worse still, increased private car use.
The latest IPPC report in 2018 indicates globally we need to halve greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 if we are to limit global warming to 1.5oC.
The UK under the Climate Change Act is also legally obliged to meet carbon budgets every five years, currently set until 2032.
Sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK
Transport is now the biggest emitter of GHG emissions in the UK. Domestic transport (road, rail, domestic aviation and shipping) equates to 28% of all UK emissions.
Whilst other sectors have reduced their emissions dramatically since 1990, for example, energy production by 62%, the domestic transport sector has only seen a drop of 3%.
Road transport is the most significant source of emissions in this sector and in 2017 made up around a fifth of the UK’s total GHG emissions, having risen by 6% since 1990.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, motor vehicle use in Great Britain was increasing. UK transport policy has failed to significantly reduce transport greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.
UK Government policy to reduce emissions from transport
UK Government policy supports a long-term transition to electric vehicles.
The UK Government has recently committed to stopping sales of conventional petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles by 2040 with a new ambition currently being consulted on for 2035.
The Government’s Road to Zero strategy sets actions and a roadmap to get there including a target of 50% of new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030.
Independent modelling, by Transport for Quality of Life, suggests if 50% of vehicle sales are electric by 2030 (the Government’s Road to Zero target), car mileage would have to decrease by up to 60%.
Even if 100% of new sales were Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEVs) by 2030, mileage would still need to be reduced by between 10% and 20%.
This means that the UK Government will have to rapidly reduce car use whilst simultaneously supporting a transition to electric vehicles if we are to avert the worst impacts of the Climate Crisis and keep global warming lower than 1.50C.
Significant issues also exist in embedded emissions of new car production and the ethical sourcing, sustainability and disposal of finite minerals used in batteries.
Electric vehicles are also significantly more expensive than conventional cars.
This may compound existing inequalities in society and could lead to greater transport poverty. This is one example that illustrates the importance of a just transition to zero carbon emissions.
Whilst policy has primarily focused on electric vehicles, the UK Government’s new Decarbonising Transport Plan presented a vision where:
“Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”
This suggested Government is beginning to consider how we can reduce private motor vehicle use to reduce transport emissions.
What Sustrans thinks
We need to reduce the use of private motor vehicles
We can no longer ignore transport if we are meet the UK’s fifth carbon budget by 2032 and ensure our transport system plays its role in helping to limit global warming to 1.5oC.
A transition to electric vehicles is important. However, it will do little to help solve issues like sedentary lifestyles, road safety, congestion or air pollution from particulate matter.
Furthermore, the dominance of motor vehicles in many neighbourhoods causes community severance and too often blights poorer communities creating obesogenic environments and reducing opportunities for physical activity.
Too many motor vehicles can also put people off wanting to live in or spend time in an area and be bad for business investment and tourism.
In addition to efforts underway to transition from conventional to electric vehicles, transport policy should seek to reduce private motor vehicle use in the UK, following the best evidence available (currently up to 60%).
The car will remain an important part of the transport mix and for many people, it is currently the only option. However we must seek to reduce car use where possible.
The UK Government needs to take urgent action to reduce the use of private motor vehicles
We need to make walking, cycling and public transport cheaper, faster, safer, and more convenient than driving if we are to reduce private motor vehicle use across the UK.
However, UK transport policy has continued to design transport and the built environment largely around the car.
Continuing to increase road capacity will only increase the number of vehicles on our roads, at a time when we should be doing the exact opposite.
In England alone, over the past five years, we have invested £15bn in the Strategic Road Network. The UK Government is proposing to increase this to £27bn from 2020 until 2025, the highest spend ever.
In Wales, 62% of capital transport funding is spent on new roads.
In Scotland, the new National Transport Strategy (NTS2) aims to respond directly to the climate crisis to help Scotland deliver net-zero emissions by 2045.
This will be done through a range of actions including ‘an ambition to phase out the need for the new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032’ changing travel behaviour and managing demand.
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles we need to reduce investment designed to increase road capacity and instead invest far more in sustainable transport: walking, cycling and public transport.
These modes have typically seen long-term under-investment.
Driving has also become comparatively cheaper. Overall the cost of buying, owning and using a car fell by 16% between 1997 and 2016.
If we are to make it attractive to use public transport over the car we need to use fiscal levers to make public transport cheaper and driving more expensive.
People living in more rural areas or places where public transport, walking and cycling is less feasible will require support, and solutions may vary or take longer to implement.
We urgently need to stop all new housing developments in areas, or at densities, that do not make walking, cycling and public transport viable and therefore lock in car dependency.
Cities and towns also need to act to reduce motor vehicles use
Action locally in cities and towns to reduce car use will also be critical. Some cities are beginning to recognise and act on this.
London has had a congestion charge for many years and now has an Ultra-Low Emissions Zone which will be expanded. TfL is funding healthy streets and neighbourhoods working with the boroughs.
Other cities have developed plans or are in the process of reviewing proposals.
Reducing car use, once a taboo subject, is now rapidly becoming part of the transport planner’s toolkit, however, we are yet to see action outside of the capital.
Sustrans welcomes proposals from cities across the UK to reduce private motor vehicle use and is keen to see action speed up, especially in the transition out of lockdown in response to the Coivid-19 pandemic.
Sustrans aims to make it easier to walk and cycle.
We know that too many cars in our cities, towns and villages currently is a significant barrier to creating attractive places where people want to walk, cycle and live.
Ambitious leadership and radical changes in planning and transport policy and investment is needed.
We urgently need significant investment in sustainable transport modes, alongside large reductions in road funding. Fiscal levers are also required to make public transport cheaper and driving more expensive.
Additional traffic restraint measures in cities and towns to reduce car use are also likely to be important.
All of these measures need to be undertaken fairly ensuring people’s lives and transport choices improve, especially where transport alternatives to the car are currently absent.