Transport for the North has released what it calls its Decarbonisation Strategy. It is also asking for comments on it via its consultation process. Occasional contributor to this website, Peter Somerville, has provided the following commentary.
The timidity of Transport for the North (TfN)
This report makes some interesting points, for example, on the need for adaptation to climate change. Overall, however it lacks the ambition required to decarbonise transport sufficiently quickly or effectively. It is broadly supportive of the status quo without recognising that it is precisely the status quo that has got us into this mess. A ‘near-zero emissions surface transport network in the North by 2045’ (p10) plus zero emissions before 2050 (p12) is just not good enough in the context of a global emergency. They seem very proud of their target of 55% reduction from 2018 to 2030 but this is really nothing to write home about.
It’s good to hear that they will soon be taking account of emissions from aviation and shipping, but of course they could be doing this already. They report that Manchester Airports Group have pledged to be a net-zero airport by 2038 (p14) but they omit to mention that this applies only to the airport itself and does not include the emissions from all the flights into and out of the airport.
Their four hypothetical future travel scenarios up to 2050 are worth noting. Three of them involve significant car growth: it’s interesting to hear that the high-tech scenario would increase car usage by 44%, and that a scenario based on soft solutions such as quality of life and community still involves massive car growth of 30%, more than the business as usual scenario increase of 28%. Even the more radical fourth scenario involves 10% car growth, when of course what is really required is a significant reduction in car usage. It is hardly surprising, then, that none of these scenarios would hit the 2030 target (p44) – indeed the carbon budget would be exhausted by then (p46).
I could not make sense of Figs 18 and 19 on pp44 and 45 but it seemed clear that their proposed decarbonisation strategy purports to be going much further than any of the four hypothetical scenarios. How this can possibly happen they do not really explain. It seems as if we are just expected to accept on trust that the measures they recommend will lead to the emissions reductions that they say will result. Unfortunately, this sort of approach is not uncommon in government publications (see, for example, the famous ten point plan), and needs to be considered with a comparable degree of caution and scepticism.
When it comes to the recommendations themselves, the general impression is one of timidity and incremental change, representing no clear advance over any of the four hypothetical scenarios. Indeed, the report largely fails to go beyond current government policy. The only example I could find that did so was the recommendation that all new cars sold from 2030 onwards should have zero emissions, compared with the government’s policy that new hybrids can be sold up to 2035. Big deal, you might say. Given that cars last for an average of fifteen years, a more appropriate policy would be to ban sales of new fossil fuelled cars from 2022. In any case, this is not something TfN controls: it requires government legislation, so the “should” is just that, an exhortation without substance.
The report’s proposed reduction in car demand (1%-4% by 2025, 3%-14% by 2030) is pitifully small. The best way to stop car demand increasing is to stop funding road development, but the government is still proposing to invest £27 billion in new and expanded roads, and the report has nothing to say about this. So demand is set to rise, not fall, particularly as electric vehicles pay no fuel tax and the cost of battery recharging is much less than the cost of petrol or diesel. A possible increase in the road fund tax is mentioned but not actually recommended. Larger cars should of course have to pay more, and car owners generally should be required to pay tax that is equivalent to the whole cost of their car usage. This would be a bolder but fairer proposal.
Similarly on public transport there is no bold thinking in this report. For example, on rail TfN envisage only a 25% reduction in emissions by 2030 (p48) when they should be advocating full electrification by that date. And it wasn’t clear to me what they were proposing on buses – just ‘invest in bus and light rail networks’ (p68) and more demand-responsive bus services (p61). This sounds fair enough but how far does it go? It would be more radical to argue for publicly controlled bus services (as proposed for Greater Manchester) and free bus travel, as exists in other countries (e.g. Luxembourg), but there is no mention of such possibilities in this report.
Finally, the report contains a section on ‘clean growth’. Here, however, the calculation of emissions goes out of the window. The emphasis is on delivering charging infrastructure, developing hydrogen technology, digitalisation, green freeports, and carbon capture and storage. There are many problems with all of this (see, for example, on Carbon dioxide removal). The report does not distinguish clearly between blue and green hydrogen, and doesn’t seem to be aware that green hydrogen (made by the electrolysis of water) is already well developed (though not in UK) and becoming cheaper by the day, so there is a real opportunity here and we should not be advocating hydrogen manufacture that is not green (blue hydrogen relies on fossil fuel production). I am not competent to comment on digitalisation, but I’m sure that it has a significant impact on carbon emissions, as well as embodied carbon and other impacts arising from the extraction of the materials required for its production. None of this is discussed here, and indeed there is no mention of a circular economy. As for freeports, it is difficult to see how they will not add to the transport of goods and services and therefore contribute further to the UK’s carbon footprint rather than reduce it. All in all, even if clean growth is possible (which is doubtful), this report clearly fails to show it.