Climate impact of UK’s £27.4bn roads plan ‘not a matter for the courts’, judge rules

The High Court has ruled that the Government did not need to assess the climate impact of its second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), after green campaigners argued that the £27.4bn package is not aligned with the 2050 net-zero commitment.

Climate impact of UK’s £27.4bn roads plan ‘not a matter for the courts’, judge rules

Campaigners claimed that policymakers had only considered the environmental impact of five of the Scheme's 50+ projects

RIS2 was first announced at the 2020 Budget and plans were then formalised with Highways England in August 2020. While the Government has repeatedly claimed that it has properly accounted for the environmental impact of the projects set to be completed using the funding, green groups have continued to voice anger and disappointment.

The Transport Action Network (TAN) took the UK Government to the high Court over RIS2. Proceedings began in June and the crux of the argument was that RIS2 could jeopardise the UK’s ability to meet its Paris Agreement commitments or legally binding net-zero by 2050 target, given that the Department for Transport (DfT) did not “properly” measure or disclose the emissions impact of the Strategy.

TAN also argued that the DfT was not abiding to the measures required by the Infrastructure Act 2015. That piece of regulation compels the Department to consider all effects on the environment when setting a Road Investment Strategy. TAN claimed that the Department only considered the emissions from five of the schemes included in the RIS2 portfolio, which includes more than 50 projects.

Expert witnesses providing evidence for TAN in the case were the Institute of Transport Studies’ chair of transport and energy Professor Jillian Anable and Professor Phil Goodwin, who lectures on transport at University College London (UCL) and the University of the West of England.

Representatives from the DfT have repeatedly denied these claims and argued that the Government has given “full and proper regard to the environment”, including emissions and climate-related impacts.

This week, a judge has ruled that TAN does not have sufficient evidence that the DfT’s decision on the Strategy was “irrational, absent bad faith or manifest absurdity”. As such, the challenge on climate grounds is not robust enough.

Speaking on Monday (26 July), Mr Justice Holgate stated that “the Government is taking a range of steps to tackle the need for urgency in addressing carbon production in the transport sector. Whether they are enough is not a matter for the Court”.

TAN campaigners are disappointed, as would be expected, and have sought permission to appeal the decision. The group has also launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover further legal costs.

“The DfT does not treat climate change with the urgency it deserves,” TAN campaigner Rebecca Lush said.

“During the hearing, the Government admitted that [Transport Secretary] Grant Shapps did not know the carbon impact of the roads programme he was approving and argued he did not need to know. The £27bn roads programme increases traffic and emissions, taking us backwards on tackling climate change. It is simply incompatible with the Government’s posturing on the world stage as a so-called climate leader.”

Professor Goodwin added: “Even on its own assumptions, the roads programme no longer makes sense. All the road schemes were planned on the assumption of traffic growing smoothly and substantially over decades. But these demand forecasts will not apply if the current trajectory of global heating is continued, with all its disruption of economic and social life. Nor will the forecasts apply if the trajectory is successfully reversed, as that will require traffic reduction, not growth. RIS2 is not fit for either possible future.”

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has supported TAN, calling the judge’s decision “shocking and deeply disappointing”. 

Transport Decarbonisation Plan

The High Court Ruling came shortly after the DfT published its Transport Decarbonisation Roadmap, following months of Covid-19-related delays.

Measures to decarbonise road transport include a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and buses. The Department for Transport (DfT) will consult on proposals to phase out polluting vehicles weighing between 3.5 tonnes and 26 tonnes from 2035 and those weighing more than 26 tonnes from 2040.

A green paper that will set out a regulatory framework for vehicle manufacturers has also been promised, to support the upcoming ban on new petrol and diesel car sales.  One key inclusion that will be in this framework is the “possible introduction of a new phased industry mandate for zero-emission vehicles”. The Government has claimed it will likely launch a consultation on this mandate.

Crucially, modal shift is considered in the plan. This involves ‘shifting’ journeys from individual cars, towards alternatives such as walking, cycling, public transport or car-sharing.

The Plan reiterates the delivery of £2bn over the next five years into cycling and walking infrastructure with the aim that half of all journeys in towns and cities will be cycled or walked by 2030 – as outlined in the Ten Point Plan. A “word-class” cycling and walking network will be created by 2040.

But some green groups have claimed that the Transport Decarbonisation Plan has “missed an opportunity” to promote alternative low-carbon modes of transport, including TAN and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

TAN’s Professor Anable said the Plan “totally failed to outline how the transport sector will make deep [emissions] cuts within the next 10 years”.

Other organisations and individuals have been more welcoming of the Plan. You can read edie’s round-up of all the key reaction here.


In related news, SKOOT, which provides carbon measurement and offsetting services to motorists, has published the result of a survey of 2,000 UK drivers, revealing habits during lockdown and beyond. 

More than half (56%) of respondents said they depended on their car more than usual during lockdown restrictions, in which public transport use was discouraged at points in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19. 

One-quarter of the respondents said they will commute by car now more than they did pre-Covid-19, with one-thrid saying they plan to avoid public transport altogether when they are travelling for work. 

Promisingly, the survey did reveal that many people who are currently making all of their work-related journeys alone would be willing to car-share. More than one-third (34%) said they would actually prefer to go with another person. 

Sarah George

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