The Conservative's proposal is based on aviation technology that's not available yet and support for traffic reduction - but no concrete plan of action.
Conventional politics works by compromising between competing interests. That can lead to progress where actions and outcomes are related in a straightforward way – a bit more action leads to a slightly better outcome. If that’s not enough, you can always do more later.
But some issues don’t work like that and some threats cannot be averted by compromise measures. In those circumstances, conventional politics can lead to catastrophe.
I was reflecting on this when reading scientific articles around recent extreme weather events and the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan, before giving evidence to an inquiry into Bristol Airport’s expansion plans. I was reminded of it again when I read Labour’s lacklustre response to the Decarbonisation Plan.
Scientists have known for some time that rising global temperatures will hit “tipping points”, releasing carbon stored in the oceans, in the ground or in vegetation, accelerating the process beyond the ability of humans to stop it.
When you are heading towards a cliff edge, compromising over your speed will not change the outcome.
Over recent weeks, the severity of some weather events, such as the North American heatwave and the flooding in Germany and Belgium, have taken climate scientists by surprise. In some places, temperatures broke all-time records by as much as 5oC, completely off the scale of most climate models.
These events have highlighted a scientific debate, which is not yet settled, about Arctic warming and its effects on the jet stream. The Arctic is warming faster than the world as a whole – and so is Britain – which may explain the simultaneous extreme heat in North America and flooding in Europe.
Whatever the truth behind that debate, the weight of evidence is now clear that global heating is happening faster than previously thought. Some of the tipping points, such as release of carbon from the Amazon, are starting to happen now, which is also sooner than most models predicted.
Not only are we heading towards a cliff, but our view is obscured and the edge might be closer than our sat nav is showing.
Gap between plan and reality
In this context, as the UK government tries to present itself as a “world leader” for COP26, they finally published their delayed Transport Decarbonisation Plan.
Transport is now the dirtiest sector by a large margin: 35% of carbon emissions, compared to 21% for industry and 18% for buildings – pre-Covid. Unlike the rest of the UK economy, no progress has been made in cutting transport emissions. This plan is supposed to change all that.
By the standards of conventional politics, it is a modest step forward, at least on road and rail transport. It says the government’s number one strategic priority is “accelerating modal shift to public and active travel.”
You might imagine that governments have always aimed to do that, but since the Blair government changed direction in the early 2000s that has not been true.
The plan intends to phase out diesel lorries, buses and trains, following earlier commitments on cars and vans. It supports things like low-traffic neighbourhoods and segregated cycle networks – although it doesn’t really explain what the government will do to create more of them.
Independent analyses, including the government’s own Climate Change Committee, suggest the current electrification timetable will not be fast enough to reach the legal carbon budgets without big cuts in traffic.
The plan talks about reducing urban traffic, though it is not clear how. But most carbon emissions come from longer journeys, which pass outside or between urban areas. For those journeys, the government reaffirmed its commitment to large-scale road building. The plan shows several emission curves pointing optimistically downwards but no mechanism to ensure that we follow them.
The biggest gap between the plan and reality concerns aviation. That chapter, and the accompanying Jet Zero consultation combine techno-fantasies with political evasion. The latter says “we currently believe the sector can achieve Jet Zero without the Government needing to intervene directly to limit aviation growth”, but the supporting analysis shows this is based on “optimistic” assumptions.
The government is hoping that new fuels, carbon capture and even battery-operated planes will rapidly cut emissions, while aviation continues to grow. A semi-independent report published alongside the plan shows these emerging technologies are subject to great uncertainty and likely to take longer than the government hopes.
Bizarrely, its main conclusions appear on pages 204-5 of the Decarbonisation Plan without mentioning how they differ from the government’s own optimistic assumptions. Ironically, the contradictions in these reports have inadvertently strengthened the case for campaigners and local authorities trying to resist airport expansion.
So how has Labour responded to all this? The parliamentary debate was conducted on the same day the report was released. Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon launched into a generalised attack on the plans before he had had chance to read them.
Since then, Labour have been strangely silent on the issue, apart from one parliamentary question. One problem for them is that many Labour MPs had berated the government for its miserly subsidies to the aviation industry during the pandemic – £7.2 billion, working out as £220 per taxpayer).
McMahon went to Heathrow and donned a Hi-Viz jacket to call for more support for aviation and “the recovery our economy will need.” Many Labour MPs do “get” climate change but many others, and our Mayor in Bristol, have backed airport expansion and/or road building. Politics as usual, in other words.
A recent study showed how Keir Starmer’s response to the pandemic has failed to convince many voters. It confirmed impressions of opportunistic sniping at the government issue by issue, with no evidence that Labour had a better plan. It seems that Labour has now recognised they need to do better on climate change.
Whenever Labour talks about climate change, it is usually about opportunities for new jobs, which is certainly worth mentioning, but hardly the main point. Over-stressing the positivity of an impending disaster may reinforce voters’ perceptions of opportunism and evasiveness.
A plan that will work
The Transport Decarbonisation Plan offers one way to show that Labour has a better plan, and a better story on decarbonisation. My version would go like this: climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. The Tories have given us a fantasy plan, which they hope might work. That’s not good enough. We need a plan that will work, come what may.
To do that we need mechanisms to make sure emissions keep falling fast enough, regardless of demand or the speed of new technologies. That would be easier for aviation. A tradeable carbon allowance, equally allocated to all citizens, could be gradually reduced in line with the carbon budgets.
It would also redistribute income from frequent flyers to poorer people who rarely fly. The challenge for the aviation industry would then become much clearer – if you want to fly more, prove you can decarbonise faster.
Road transport would be more difficult, but other mechanisms could be used to regulate traffic and emissions. Road pricing or higher fuel taxes would be the easiest, though politically difficult.
Scrappage schemes could take petrol and diesel vehicles off the roads more quickly, allowing people to trade them for electric vehicles or “mobility credits”, which are currently being trialled in the West Midlands.
Limits could be placed on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles. Motorway speeds could be reduced. In extremis, some vehicles could be stopped from driving on certain days, as some European cities have done in response to air pollution.
Above all, we must stop making the problem worse. For transport that means no more airport expansion and no expansion of road capacity. No party which is serious about climate change can fudge those issues.
Steve Melia is a Senior Lecturer in transport and planning at the University of the West of England. He was on an academic panel advising the Shadow Planning Minister in 2018/19. His book, Roads Runways and Resistance – from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion, is published by Pluto Press.
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