Transport and Cimate Cange

Alternative transport options are urgently needed if we are to truly address climate change, writes Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth.

Climate change dwarfs all other threats to humankind and the stability of the environment. It is expected to impact on the lives of millions of people across the globe, create extreme weather, and lead to the extinction of as many as one million species worldwide.

The way we develop and use transport in the UK will play a crucial part in either adding to, or reducing climate change. The Government now has a short window of opportunity to put new technology and legislation in place to offer real solutions to climate change, or to increase the problem by sticking to existing transport policy.

There’s no doubt that the Government acknowledges the significance of climate change. Just last September Tony Blair warned it was “so far reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence.” Describing it as “the world’s greatest environmental challenge” he promised to put it at the top of the international agenda. And he has the power to do that, because this year the UK both chairs the G8 meeting of the world’s most powerful nations and also holds presidency of the EU.

Transport is typical of the gap between rhetoric and action when it comes to dealing with climate change. The way we travel and the types of transport that we are encouraged to use are a big part of the problem. Transport makes up around quarter of UK emissions. And as emissions from transport rise at the same time as other sectors such as industry reduce their pollution, the proportion of CO2 emissions coming from transport’s share is set to increase. That’s why the Department for Transport now has joint responsibility for the Government’s target to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.

It looks like the Government will meet its Kyoto target to reduce emissions of a basket of climate change gases to 12.5% below 1990 levels by the end of the decade, but this isn’t down to its own action. The fall in emissions since 1990 is mainly due to the last Tory government’s ‘dash for gas’.

The Government has admitted that it isn’t on course to meet its own target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by the end of the decade. Caving in to pressure about caps on carbon dioxide emissions from industry in future years doesn’t help, but last October the Government did just that when it submitted its revised National Allocation Plan to the EU.

Typical of the Government’s approach is that of the White Paper ‘The Future of Transport’, published last July, which included “measures affecting the cost of fuel” in a list of “the most cost effective ways of reducing total CO2 emissions from the transport sector”. But, within hours of the publication of the White Paper, the Treasury announced the postponement of the fuel tax rise announced by the Chancellor to be introduced in September.

The Government hoped for big cuts in emissions through improving car fuel efficiency. It was relying on a voluntary agreement between the EU and European car manufacturers to improve the average fuel efficiency of vehicles sold. However it looks set to fall quite a way short of the target. The UK is lagging behind the EU average due, in part, to increasing sales of gas-guzzlers such as 4x4s. While there are no real ‘sticks’ such as higher car tax rates to encourage people to switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles, it’s little wonder the consumer isn’t getting the message.

Changing people’s travel behaviour is another way to reduce emissions. The Government says it wants people to use their cars less and public transport more, but motoring is cheaper in real terms than in 1997 and using public transport is more expensive. Little wonder, then, that traffic levels are still rising. Part of the Government’s answer is to build more roads and widen motorways – a sticking plaster response at best, as experience shows us that road-building rarely solves traffic problems. When parts of the M25 were widened to 4 lanes each way in the 1990s, some stretches were full again within a year of opening.

Aviation is in many ways an even greater worry. The Government’s ‘predict and promote’ attitude to aviation expansion wants new runways at Stansted and Heathrow, and a huge rise in passenger numbers in coming decades. The weight of political and academic opinion pointing out the potentially catastrophic consequences of this scale of expansion on climate emissions is growing. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee summed up the situation well: “if aviation emissions increase on the scale predicted by the DfT, the UK’s 60% carbon emission reduction target which the Government set last year will become meaningless and unachievable”.

Expansion at the scale forecast is only possible because of the crazy economics of the aviation industry. Airlines pay no tax on the fuel they use, and no VAT on many aspects of their operations. This adds up to an effective subsidy of over £9 billion every year in the UK alone. That’s why low-cost airlines can fly you to the sun for next-to-nothing.

Critics claim that restricting aviation growth will harm the economy and hit poorer people hardest, but most of the forecast passenger growth is in leisure rather than business flights, and most of the leisure flight growth is from people in social groups ABC1 flying more often.

So what do we need to see?

Historically we have relied on technology to provide the solutions to transport problems. But in this case we can’t. Technology such as cleaner engines and fuels will help, but won’t be enough. Many of the benefits of cleaner cars will be lost through continuing traffic growth. New planes such as the Airbus A380 might be more fuel-efficient than the current fleet, but they won’t be enough to counteract the growth in emissions from more flights.

All transport policy should be passed through a climate ‘filter’. The impact on climate emissions should not be sole factor in deciding what policies the Government adopts, but it should be a major consideration.

For surface transport, there must be a further agreement between the EU and car manufacturers to reduce average emissions from cars sold, on a mandatory basis if necessary. Hydrogen is now seen as the probable fuel for road vehicles in the long-term, but the UK risks falling behind in research into the fuel cells that would use the hydrogen and in the development of a hydrogen fuelling infrastructure. Tax policy needs to give real incentives to buy small, fuel-efficient cars rather than gas-guzzlers, and for more use of renewable bio-fuels. If the Government decides to introduce a nationwide road-user charge, then this should be designed not just to cut congestion, but also to tackle emissions of carbon dioxide.

The balance of transport spending must move from road-building to providing real alternatives to car use such as better public transport and safer streets for cycling and walking. This will not just help cut climate emissions but will also address many of the other environmental, economic and social impacts of the way we travel. The manifesto of the ‘Way to Go’ campaign, which Friends of the Earth helped set up last year, gives the policy priorities for the Government.

On aviation, we need to tackle the economics of the industry by immediately increasing Air Passenger Duty. This could be linked to plans to include aviation in the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), with the duty rises removed when aviation is fully integrated into a robust ETS, with airlines being forced to reduce their emissions. Fuel tax on internal flights should also be introduced as soon as possible, as a first stage towards European wide and international tax. Current plans for airport expansion must be reassessed in the light of climate targets. If the price of flying merely stayed constant in real terms, rather than falling further as the Aviation White Paper predicts, then the Government’s own modelling shows that the growth this would generate could be accommodated without having to build any new runway capacity in the UK.

The current review of the Climate Change Programme provides an ideal opportunity for the Government to make sure that its actions are as strong as its rhetoric. On transport, as in many other areas, tough decisions will be needed, some of which may not be popular with the motoring lobby and the tabloid media. But they are essential. Climate change must not be treated as a distant threat of no relevance to the electorate – action is needed now. Politicians from all parties must support efforts to persuade the world to act, and back bold policies to tackle it at home. Climate change is the single biggest threat facing the global community and we must all engage in the fight to keep this unique planet habitable.

Tony Bosworth, Senior Campaigner in Climate and Transport, Friends of the Earth.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie