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Can we meet sustainable transport and decarbonisation targets?

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 16

PSE’s David Stevenson analyses the recent Environmental Audit Committee’s report into sustainability in the Department for Transport (DfT), and what this means for achieving sustainable transport targets.

Although the DfT has taken “many positive steps” to meet the challenge of sustainability in the transport sector, there needs to be a clearer strategy communicated to increase the use of ultra-low emissions vehicles (ULEVs) and reducing air pollution so it can meet existing decarbonisation targets. 

This is the short conclusion of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report ‘Sustainability in the DfT’, which highlighted that many transport authorities have had problems developing sustainable projects because the government has  placed more focus on economic growth than on sustainability. 

The committee noted, for instance, that the DfT’s projected market share for ULEVs of between 3% and 7%, with a mid-point of 5% by 2020, “is too vague”, especially as it leaves the UK playing catch-up with the 9% market share that the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) advises would keep the country on the lowest-cost path to its overall 2050 emissions reduction target. The government’s principal long-term environmental target, legislated for in the Climate Change Act 2008, is an 80% reduction in the 1990 level of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Additionally, the National Audit Office stated that while stakeholders were supportive of the long-term 2050 decarbonisation target and the department’s current actions to support the early market for ULEVs and innovation, “they expressed concerns regarding the lack of a clear medium-term strategy beyond 2020”. 

The committee has, therefore, called on the DfT and Treasury to develop a clear policy that incentivises ULEV market development and maintains long-term revenue streams for public finances. But the cross-party group of MPs added that, as things stand, “we have no confidence that the UK will achieve 60% market share by 2030”, which was recommended by the CCC. 

Incentivising uptake 

However, a number of ideas were mooted by transport bodies to incentivise uptake. The committee said Transport for London suggested that the lack of a second-hand ULEV market and the resulting “steep depreciation” was a barrier to fleet uptake, and recommended a scheme to underwrite this risk or to guarantee buy-back. It also suggested the department consider a fund to help workplaces invest in charging points. 

Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) called for more funding for charging infrastructure, and Bristol City Council added that ULEV promotion needed to be “cross-departmental”, with, for example, new residential developments including passive provision for vehicle charging. 

Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said local authorities had a range of innovative ideas to drive take-up, and “ministers should also think about changes to vehicle taxation, including company cars, to make electric vehicles more attractive”. 

Air quality concerns 

As well as looking at the ULEV market, the committee focused on air quality. It noted that in 2013 only five of 43 clean air zones in the UK met EU standards on levels of NOx, a pollutant which causes respiratory diseases. Following court action in 2015, the DfT has now produced a joint air quality plan with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Under the plan, 2020 is now the date by which all zones except Greater London are expected to meet the target. 

But Bristol City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) noted that while there is support for sustainable transport initiatives, there were inconsistencies between government departments. These included cutting local transport funding through the block grant and investing heavily in roads, “which could simply bring about the release of more induced demand onto the highway network”. 

WYCA also noted that funds distributed through Local Enterprise Partnerships, to which DfT is “a major contributor”, focused on jobs and economic growth, rather than on sustainability. TfGM said a clear overarching strategy from the DfT on air quality specifically is warranted, supported by appropriate weighting in scheme assessment and a dedicated and devolved funding stream for intervention. 

“The government’s belated plan to tackle air quality means polluted towns and cities will hit 2010 air quality targets 10 years late, in 2020,” said Creagh. “Transport authorities throughout England told us they have had problems with getting sustainable transport projects off the ground, because the DfT places more importance on economic benefits rather than the health benefits of improving air quality.” 

Bridget Fox, sustainable transport campaigner for the Campaign for Better Transport, said stronger action to clean up polluting vehicles is welcome, but ultimately the answer lies in reducing car dependency, getting more freight onto rail and investing in good-quality public transport alternatives.

 A DfT spokesperson said the department welcomed the report and would respond in due course. They added: “We are committed to improving air quality and reducing vehicle emissions. We want nearly all cars and vans to be zero emission by 2050 and are investing more than £600m in this Parliament to support the manufacture, use and uptake of ULEVs.” 

Although the lack of clarity is a concern, the committee suggested the DfT has the chance to build on many of the positive steps it has taken on sustainability and to lead other departments, local government and the transport sector in the pursuit of sustainable transport. However, in order for this to happen, there must be greater transparency, communication and dedicated funding. The question is whether, in this time of austerity,  this is achievable.


The report can be accessed at:


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