Climate Change Committee tells government: You can’t keep building roads and relying on electric vehicles

To reach ‘net zero’, the government must enable people to #DriveLessCycleMore
The government’s statutory advisors on meeting the UK’s climate targets have today (28 June) published their annual progress report. It includes a damning assessment of government’s failure to reduce society’s car dependence and six very helpful recommendations, as policy director Roger Geffen explains

Today’s annual progress report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) is the last before Conservative peer Lord Deben (or John Gummer, formerly a very good environment secretary) steps down after 10 years as the committee’s chair. In his foreword, he laments: “Our confidence in the achievement of the UK’s 2030 target and the Fifth and Sixth Carbon Budgets has markedly declined from last year.”

The report’s summary echoes this message: “The UK has lost its clear global leadership position on climate action.” It criticises the government for a lack of urgency and international leadership, as well as for giving the go-ahead to a coal mine in Cumbria, the exploitation of new North Sea oil fields, and a failure to halt airport expansion.

Despite the fact that surface transport emissions grew by 3% in the past year, the report still gives a relatively positive assessment of the steps the government has taken to reverse this. This is mainly because it recently consulted on a Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. This would require motor manufacturers to progressively increase ZEVs as a proportion of their UK car and van sales.

Interestingly, the report commends the government’s support for low traffic neighbourhoods. The CCC seems not to have noticed that ministers pointedly said that the latest round of active travel funding (announced last month) excludes any funding for LTNs.

The report strongly criticises the government’s decision not to quantify the potential emissions savings from reducing car-kilometres in its Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP; published in March). The CBDP was supposed to strengthen the commitments previously made in the government’s Net Zero Strategy (NZS), after the courts found the NZS to be unlawful because it inadequately quantified how the government’s statutory ‘Net Zero’ target would be met.

The CCC says that the decision to omit the emissions savings from reducing the growth of car travel in the CBDP “signals a lack of commitment to modal shift. A pathway that is almost exclusively technology dependent is likely to be less cost effective, entails higher delivery risk … and risks missing out on opportunities to realise co-benefits to society.” ‘Co-benefits’ are things like reduced congestion, air pollution and physical inactivity.

Leading transport academic professor Greg Marsden, from the University of Leeds, has been much more fiercely critical of this failure, saying: “This is not gear change, this is reverse gear.”

The CCC report adds that: “The government has made no progress on our recommendations on clarifying the role for car demand reduction and ensuring that key enablers (road-building decisions and taxation) are aligned to delivering this.

"While there have been some positive signs through the distribution of capability funding by Active Travel England, the introduction of the temporary £2 bus fare cap and the implementation of low traffic neighbourhoods and low-emission zones by local authorities, these have been balanced by negative developments including delays to local transport plan guidance and cuts to the active travel budget.”

And that brings me to the CCC’s six policy recommendations that I particularly want to highlight.

1. Develop a coherent policy package to reduce car demand

[Recommendation R2022-119]

This was actually part of a recommendation that the CCC made in its 2022 progress report, on enabling the public to make green choices. However this year’s report laments: “Measures to reduce car demand are largely absent from the government’s CBDP quantified delivery pathway”.

It also notes that “without policy action to embed a reduction in the need to travel by car or grow the availability and attractiveness of alternative lower-carbon modes, traffic is likely to increase beyond the CCC’s pathway [to net zero]”.

The other five recommendations all relate to this wider point.

2. Publish guidance to local authorities on what their Local Transport Plans should cover, including how to quantify the resulting carbon emissions savings

[Recommendation R2023-149]

The government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) promised to revive the system of Local Transport Plans (LTPs), as a way to secure local commitment to a low-carbon transport future. The law already requires local transport authorities in England to adopt and periodically update LTPs, in response to government guidance – except that the government itself hasn’t updated its guidance on LTPs since 2009.

The TDP promised in 2021 that the LTP system would be revived, with councils’ LTPs being required to set out ambitious plans for walking and cycling networks, bus service improvements and, crucially, ‘quantified carbon reduction’ (QCR) targets if they wanted to secure local transport funding. However the CCC report says that, almost two years later, we’re still waiting.

3. Restore the funding allocated for active travel at Spending Review 2021

[Recommendation R2023-150]

This is the recommendation most directly relevant to Cycling UK. After huge numbers of parliamentary questions and evasive ministerial answers, the National Audit Office’s report on Active Travel in England, published three weeks ago, finally confirmed the scale of the cuts to dedicated capital funding for active travel: it fell by 75% from £200m in each of the last two years, to just £50m a year for this year and next (2023-24 and 2024-25).

Even now, I’m not convinced this is the full story on the cuts made. I will be meeting with the CCC in three weeks’ time, when I will point out that the NAO report proved what Cycling UK has claimed for several years, namely that even the original funding was only about a quarter to a third of what was needed for the government to meet its targets to double cycling and increase walking. Hence the CCC needs to go further than merely calling for the cuts to be restored.

4. Review planning policies to ensure that the planning system consistently prioritises net zero

[Priority Recommendation R2023-155]

This is one of a handful of ‘priority recommendations’ in the CCC report, and it could be very timely.

Cycling UK is one of more than 30 members of the Better Planning Coalition, which is pressing for “a planning system fit for climate, nature and people”. BPC is working with supportive peers to table amendments to the government’s planning legislation (the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill), when the Lords get back to debating the bill next month.

One of these amendments aims to do exactly what the CCC is calling for. That would not only support more energy-efficient buildings, but would also make it much harder for developers to insist on being allowed to build new housing and other developments in car-dependent rural locations.

We very much hope the government will heed this call, and back this and other amendments that the BPC is proposing – including another that similarly seeks to embed health and wellbeing considerations into planning policy and decision making, nationally and locally.

5. Address fiscal issues relating to transport decarbonisation – consider road pricing

[Recommendation R2022-292]

The CCC’s 2022 progress report highlighted the risks that success in promoting the uptake of electric vehicles would result in a loss of Treasury revenues from fuel duty, leaving a very large fiscal black hole in a few years’ time. This year the Committee has gone further, backing recommendations from the Commons Transport Select Committee, Green Alliance, Campaign for Better Transport and others to set up a process to consider how road pricing could be implemented.

This really needs to happen urgently. Politicians of all parties recognise the need to bite this bullet, if only because of the looming fiscal black hole, leaving aside the urgent environmental case for road pricing. Yet none of the main parties seem willing to talk about it before the next election.

The risk is that the next government sets up a commission to formulate and consult on how road pricing might be implemented – but this takes two to three years, by which time it will be too difficult to act on the findings before the next-but-one general election.

By the time the next-government-but-one comes into power (most likely in 2029), the fiscal black hole will have grown enormous, while another five years will have been spent failing to tackle the relentless growth of road traffic.

I hope both main parties heed the CCC’s call for cross-party agreement to get discussions going on road pricing as soon as possible, so that the main parties aren’t trying to blame each other for the idea in the run-up to the general election next year.

6. Conduct a systematic review of current and future road-building projects to assess their consistency with the government’s environmental goals

[Recommendation R2023-148]

The CCC notes that the Welsh Government (WG) commissioned a similar review of road schemes in Wales, which resulted in 44 out of 59 road schemes being dropped. The CCC commends the WG’s clear criteria for defining the exceptional circumstances under which roads could go ahead as “an example of how a sector-specific Net Zero test can be applied in practice”.

Cycling UK is currently responding to a DfT consultation on from National Highways’ proposed priorities for the government’s Third Roads Investment Strategy (RIS3; from April 2025 to March 2030).

We have also responded recently to two consultations (one from the Commons Transport Select Committee, the other from DfT itself) on a draft of the bizarrely named National Networks National Policy Statement (NNNPS), which is effectively a document which allows ministers to give planning permission for major road and rail schemes. We made similar points in our response to a Commons Transport Committee inquiry on strategic roads investment earlier this year.

Our response to all four consultations is that significant new road building is incompatible with reaching net zero, and that the emphasis should be on maintaining existing roads (rather than building new ones), as well as overcoming the environmental, safety and severance problems created by the existing motorway and trunk road network (for example, people living on one side of a trunk road being unable to walk or cycle to schools on the other side).

** Update 27 July 2023: The Commons Transport Committee’s inquiry report on strategic roads investment has also now given strong backing to this stance**

We are also saying that the money saved by not building major roads could be much better spent on provision for cycling and other forms of clean, healthy, low-carbon transport – allowing ministers to restore funding for cycling and walking to a level which would enable them to reach their targets.

Instead, though, ministers are still contemplating a roads programme including such monstrosities as the Lower Thames Crossing – which alone would cost £8bn by the government’s own estimate, and which would lead to around £6.6m tonnes of CO2 emissions. In the midst of a climate crisis, this is surely the opposite of what they should be doing.

We’re asking you to add your voice as we put pressure on the Government to change its priorities.