Reverse Gear: Analysing the UK’s Transport Decarbonisation Ambitions

18 May 2023

In January 2023 the Department for Transport released the assumptions underpinning the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) potential policy pathways on road traffic, electrification and other related policies. This was followed up in March by a downgrading of the sectoral ambitions for domestic transport in the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan and the announcement of what seems like the likely pathway for phasing out fossil fuel vehicles and phasing in sales of Electric Vehicles. A lot to digest.

A step backwards

Analysis in a new report (Reverse Gear) shows that the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan has removed 72% of the ambition from the policy pathway for domestic transport emission reduction as things stand. Two factors explain much of this reduction. The consultation on the New National Networks Planning Policy Statement suggests that under all scenarios there is now seen to be a need to plan for traffic growth, whereas the TDP included scenarios where traffic remained below pre-pandemic levels throughout the life of the plan. The consultation on the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate looks to be setting a pathway which is in line with the least ambitious end of the technology uptake pathways set out in the TDP. This is not to suggest that the ZEV Mandate is unambitious, just that previous imaginings of ultra-rapid technology transition cannot be delivered.

Both the assumptions on traffic levels and on technology transition fall behind those anticipated by the Climate Change Committee and so we end up with a downgrading of ambition in transport relative to the 6th Carbon Budget. There remains some hope that Local Transport Plans, to be agreed towards the end of 2024, will add some further behaviour change ambition but this requires stress testing as an assumption. No new funding has been announced and it is difficult to be clear whether what is promised by local authorities is, essentially, already part of the baseline assumptions on traffic growth in the economy.

The slowest sector to decarbonise

Transport has been the slowest sector to decarbonise and is now the largest carbon emitting sector in the economy. Are there sound economic arguments for going slower in transport and pushing the need for savings elsewhere? It seems far from clear that other sectors can deliver the ambitions they already face, with major policy risks identified by the CCC across all areas of the economy. However, even if one could mount a defence for pushing transport emission reductions elsewhere it would be difficult to defend the strategy currently on the table within the transport sector.

Electrification’s impact on inequality

Electrification currently has higher up front vehicle purchase costs but much lower per mile costs (particularly for those who can home charge). The current strategy has no plans to change the pricing of transport and so we will see a lower marginal cost of motoring, undermining the competitive position of public transport and increasing congestion – itself a major economic externality. Coupled with this, electrification will benefit the most wealthy groups early in the transition, with those reliant on the second hand market required to wait. The transition will exacerbate existing unfairness in transport. We can see this coming, policy makers recognise it, but the chances of any political movement on how we pay for travel feels, at best, remote.

The battle for a balanced, ambitious and fair transition in transport continues. It would be interesting to hear from UKERC members involved in other sectors of the economy impacted by the reversal of transport ambitions to see whether you welcome the back track.