Smart Transport

Some COP-outs, but good progress made

Stephen Joseph OBE

So COP26 has been and gone.

While much of the focus has been on coal (phasing down rather than phasing out) and on finance for developing countries, there was a ‘transport day’, and it’s worth seeing where that and the rest of the COP has ended up on the decarbonising of transport. Interpretations of the COP, inevitably, vary – from Greta Thunberg’s denunciation of “blah, blah, blah” to the UK Government’s upbeat assessment of achievements during the conference and in the final communiqués.

But there have been more nuanced assessments, for example Professor Michael Jacobs from Sheffield University and James Murray of Business Green say that COP achieved as much as it could given the nature of the process and that there were important victories, including the finalisation of what is called the “Paris Rulebook”, the rules under which countries’ plans to achieve 1.5 degrees will be judged.

As importantly, countries have been tasked to come back with more ambitious plans next year with the aim of keeping temperature rise within 1.5 degrees – and the very fact of that now being the target is progress of a sort. Despite the arguments on coal, the very mention of fossil fuels and the need to reduce them in the final communiqué is a first for any COP.

And there were agreements on methane and deforestation too. But these and other commentators also emphasise that much more is needed, from all sectors and all countries, if emissions are to checked and brought down. In this context, the side agreements – “coalitions of the willing” coming together to agree to move further and faster on aspects of climate change – may be more important than the COP agreements themselves.

This is particularly true with transport. There was no formal agreement on transport in the final COP communiqué, but there was an agreement involving 30 countries and some regional governments and carmakers to make zero emission vehicles “the new normal”, and various developing countries agreed to accelerate the transition towards zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) in their markets.

There was also a side agreement on setting up “green shipping corridors”, which is an attempt to put pressure on the International Maritime Organisation to take some meaningful action on climate change.

There will also be a new World Bank trust fund to support decarbonisation of road transport in developing countries. All of this marks some progress and will undoubtedly help accelerate the move towards electric and zero-emission vehicles.

The UK repeated its pledge to end sales of diesel trucks by 2040 – and this will set the pace for others. In this sense, Glasgow just underpinned and strengthened moves that were already happening, but thus acceleration will contribute to the Paris targets and will create its own dynamic of falling prices and improved technology for ZEVs.

However, as has been said many times at Smart Transport, just moving the car and van fleet from fossil fuel to electric or hydrogen won’t be enough. It won’t be enough for the transport sector as a whole in contributing to the meeting of the Paris target, or in the various Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). And it won’t be enough to meet the UK Government’s net zero target for 2050 and the five-year carbon budgets that lead up to that. There is now good academic evidence for this – see for example, a Creds article, which points out there is no silver bullet and the demand for energy and transport has to be reduced. Translated, this means cutting vehicle mileage.

There’s an increasing consensus in the transport world that this is a key part of any decarbonisation plan.

For example, the Greener Transport Council brought together a coalition of researchers and opinion formers to produce a “manifesto for decarbonising transport”.. It says: “GTS has conducted extensive research which concludes that achieving our carbon reduction targets will require:

  1. Traffic reduction in addition to the roll out of zero emissions vehicles;
  2. A complete reform of motoring taxation as we transition from petrol and diesel vehicles; and
  3. A credible national programme for delivering behaviour change.

However, in Glasgow all of this was talked about at the margins, if at all.

The sustainable transport declaration did, after a last-minute intervention by a EU official, include a recognition at the end “that alongside the shift to ZEVs, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and sharedtransport”, but those representing this world were not much in evidence at the official conference.

At a UK level, politicians have been keen to talk up the technological opportunities and progress for net zero and have avoided any suggestion of the need for any change in behaviour, in transport or in other areas.

Boris Johnson’s foreword to the Government’s Net Zero strategy says that it shows “how we can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight”. The other parties – Greens apart perhaps – have also not talked much about this.

Politicians, locally and nationally, have been reluctant to talk about any behaviour change in transport – they see it as a route to political oblivion

At one level, you can see why. Politicians run scared of public backlashes – in the UK, there is a collective political memory of the 2001 fuel tax protests and of the petition against road pricing in 2007.

Local referenda on road charging schemes in Manchester and Edinburgh also went heavily against the proposals.

There is also the example from France of the ”gilets jaunes” protests, which began as a reaction against increases in fuel taxes. More recently, there have been the controversies over low-traffic neighbourhoods and cycle lanes.

So it’s not surprising that politicians, locally and nationally, have been reluctant to talk about any behaviour change in transport – they see it as a route to political oblivion.

Interestingly, even many of the main environmental NGOs have found it easier to campaign on electric vehicles and against internal combustion engines rather than wider transport issues. Added to this, there are real current issues with public transport.

Covid lost public transport its patronage and it is only slowly building it back. It is common to talk about a “car-led recovery”, but, in fact, it can be argued, that what we are seeing now is a leisureled recovery.

Car use is back at pre-pandemic levels at weekends, but still below them during the week (though not by much). Public transport is showing a similar pattern – some services and lines are almost back to pre-pandemic levels at weekends, but weekday commuting and business travel are still well down.

This poses real issues for the financing of public transport. The Treasury is keen to withdraw the pandemic funding from public transport services; it is also not keen to finance measures that might (but only might) bring in new revenue – for example flexible season tickets for commuters now working at home some of the week.

So, rail fares will increase next year, and there are consultations on new rail timetables that reduce peak services and frequencies.

Buses are less directly affected, but their finances are also not great, and tram services in the cities that have them have also needed support.

There could be a cliff edge – if the Government support for public transport is cut or disappears altogether before patronage is back, we can expect some quite sharp service reductions and fares rises too.

The UK is not the only country facing this issue. Others – especially those with rising Covid levels and renewed lockdowns – are facing the need for extra finance for public transport.

But some have made a virtue of this, linking it to their climate change agenda. Austria has launched a “climate ticket” which gives people access to the country’s entire public transport network for around €3 (£2.50) a day.

France has refused to fund any internal air service where there is a good rail alternative and has announced further investment in high speed rail lines.

However, in the UK, public transport is not seen as a central element in a the Government’s decarbonisation strategy. Some specialist press reports talk of the Treasury seeing railways as a “middle class toy”, and being reluctant to fund expansion or investment (hence the downgrading of the “Integrated Rail Plan” which has caused so much anger in the north of England). Some commentators downplay public transport – Simon Jenkins in The Guardian said rail accounts for 2% of journeys. All this ignores the point that, with carbon, mileage matters.

Rail may account for 2% of journeys, but before the pandemic it had a respectable 16% share of longer distance journeys, and its growth back into leisure markets will help regain this.

And it’s the small proportion of longer journeys that account for much of the carbon emissions. On one calculation, 83% of car emissions come from journeys in excess of five miles. So a high quality public transport network should be seen as an important part of any decarbonisation strategy.

But this – and the other benefits of good public transport such as decongestion and better air quality – count as “non-user benefits”, and the Treasury has always been reluctant to fund these.

If we end up with poorer services and higher fares, thiswill make a difference – it will make reductions in vehicle mileage harder to achieve. I said that politicians were reluctant to talk about cutting traffic and behaviour change, but, while that may be true at a UK level, it is not true at lower levels.

In particular, the Scottish Government has set itself the target of cutting vehicle mileage by 20% (on 2019 levels) by 2030, as part of its decarbonisation plan. They championed this at COP26, and in a ‘Further, Faster, Together’ action document produced by the “Under2 Coalition” urged more countries to follow.

As one of the conditions for the Green Party joining the Scottish Government, there’s a commitment to spend 10% of the transport budget on active travel by 2024/25 – up from the current 3.5% level.

The Welsh Government is reviewing its roads programme and is also seeking ways to cut traffic. UK100 has 93 authorities committed to meeting Net Zero at least five years earlier than the UK’s 2050 deadline.

Public transport and active travel offer some help in reducing vehicle mileage, but car sharing is also important. As I mentioned in the previous issue of the ST Journal, the Transport Decarbonisation Plan includes commitments to increase car occupancy and for a “commute zero” initiative, and these are being actively explored.

Liftshare, which has championed both these, says that its stats show that car occupancy is lower in reality than Department for Transport figures suggest.

Even a modest increase in car-sharing could therefore make a big difference to vehicle mileage and numbers, and commuting (where there are a lot of longer journeys) seems like a good place to start.

All of this makes cutting traffic and changing travel behaviour feel less challenging than politicians think it is. But it will need funding and here there is scope for creativity. Many have taken aim at the £27bn roads programme, but maybe there’s a case for simply repurposing it.

Suppose with support for car-sharing and a switch to rail for longer distance passenger journeys and freight it will be possible to make better use of the roads we have. At present, the metrics for roads are measured in vehicles, per hour or per day – but maybe measuring the flows of people per hour would change things, rewarding National Highways and transport authorities for efficient use of road space rather than moving vehicles.

Suddenly shared vehicles and coaches would make good business sense for National Highways, and authorities would find that space for buses, shared cars and cycling would make most sense for them (many do this now, but national guidance and appraisal doesn’t encourage it).

So COP26 has made a difference, in many ways. But its requirement on all countries for greater ambition in cutting greenhouse gases will perhaps make the biggest difference, because it will encourage everyone else to redouble their efforts. Just because formal COP communiqués only glance at active travel, public transport and behaviour change doesn’t stop cities and devolved governments from going after it, and taking the initiative in tackling climate change.

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