UK’s Department for Transport “side-lining” climate change, campaigners claim

Friends of the Earth argue that electrification alone is not enough

In a new report entitled “getting the Department for Transport on the right track” and published today (24 May), the green campaign group accuses the DfT of continuing to pursue high-carbon projects such as new roads or road expansions, over lower-carbon alternatives.

By doing so, the report argues, the DfT is failing to give Highways England and local councils a best-practice example to follow for decarbonising local transport networks in line with the Climate Change Act (CCA) or the Paris Agreement.

More broadly, Friends of the Earth is accusing the DfT of implementing policy frameworks which prioritise short-term economic development and congestion reduction over long-term carbon cuts. Such frameworks, it claims, include the Transport Investment Strategy, Major Road Networks guidance and Strategic Transport Plans of the Sub-national Transport Bodies.

The group does acknowledge the introduction of more climate-focused policies in recent times, including the Clean Growth Strategy and Road to Zero, but argues that these place too much focus on the uptake of small electric vehicles (EVs) and not enough on reducing individual road journeys altogether.

“The world has woken up to the urgency of the climate crisis and people are rightly demanding action, but it seems that the DfT isn’t just stuck in the slow lane, but has completely veered off course,” Friends of the Earth’s head of science Mike Childs said.

“Transport is the single largest climate emitter in the UK – and this government’s obsession with road-building and backing for airport expansion is making things worse. Unless the DfT acts quickly to get back on track, we can add failing on climate change to Grayling’s disastrous legacy in charge.”     

Responding to Childs’s comments and the report’s accusations, a DfT spokeswoman said they were “absolute nonsense”.

The spokeswoman argued that DfT’s Transport Analysis Guidance (TAG) does not prioritise social or economic improvement over reducing the environmental impact of any one project or transport sub-sector, adding that its TAG is dependent on the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) recommended greenhouse gas values, which are aligned with the CCA.

“We recognise that transport currently emits more greenhouse gases than any other sector of the economy, which is why we are driving forward plans to deliver the cleaner, greener transport that Britain needs, including by ending the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040,” she concluded.

Key recommendations

While the first half of the Friends of the Earth report, researched by NGO Transport Quality of Life, highlights what the group believes are past wrongdoings of the Department, the latter pages outline a string of changes it would like to see implemented.

It recommends that the DfT should set its own carbon budget – placed on an equal footing with its financial budget – and draw up a plan outlining how it will keep within these limits for both road transport and aviation. Local authorities should also be encouraged to set their own carbon budgets, Friends of the Earth claims.

The report additionally calls for Highways England to be “repurposed” in order to drive a focus on reducing individual road journeys rather than building new road capacity. If this move is completed, the document states, no more roads would be built unless they were consistent with the CCA.

The recommendations come after the UK’s transport emissions rose by 2% last year, as total national emissions fell slightly. The DfT did not comment on whether it would make, or consider, any of these changes in its response to the report.

Sarah George

Comments (2)

  1. Keiron Shatwell says:

    And how do FoE propose reducing individual road journeys when there frequently is no other option for people to get to shops/work/have a life etc? Go back to horse and cart?

    It is all well and good them bashing the Dept for Transport but they never offer up meaningful or realistic solutions to the problems. When they lead by example and stop driving to protests or flying around to conferences or to protest at conferences then perhaps more people will start to listen to them.

  2. Ian Byrne says:

    The FOE report is a lot more nuanced than Keiron Shatwell implies. Its main criticism is around the methodology applies by DfT when evaluating new roads, which is claims is biased towards time costs of motorists, and its failure to mesh into Government carbon targets. LEPs are singled out for their lack of local accountability, and a seeming focus on development for development’s sake. The recommendation that Highways England should have its own carbon budget seems sensible, although even this could be criticised as not joined up enough with rail and aviation policy.

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