Nigel Doggett on government rhetoric supplanting serious action

By 2020, the UK had succeeded in cutting carbon emissions by around 50% since 1990. However, this was mostly achieved in the energy sector, especially by phasing out coal and the ‘dash for gas’, and a rebound is in hand as the UK economy gears up after successive lockdowns. The further 28% reduction to reach the latest target of 78% by 2035 will require a 56% saving based on recent emissions, with most low hanging fruit already plucked.

This demands a gargantuan effort, but the British Government shows little appetite, relying on crowd-pleasing rhetoric rather than serious action, most recently at the June G7 meeting. Yet record levels of public concern, climate assemblies and campaign pressures backed by reports of climate impacts such as iceshelf and glacier shrinkage, biodiversity loss and ocean warming, means that excuses for inaction observed by Rebecca Willis are wearing thin.

The UK’s statutory watchdog, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), has shown the UK falling behind its ‘carbon budget’ targets and its recent adaptation report is scathing about the lack of preparation for hazards already occurring. The CCC highlights several sectors making slow and piecemeal progress: agricultural and land use, building (heating and cooling, especially of housing) and transport.

The surface transport sector has been the largest contributor to emissions since 2015, producing 22% of the total in 2019, over half of which is from fossil-fuelled cars. Despite technological innovation and the introduction of hybrid and battery electric cars, these emissions have hardly changed since 1990 due to increases in both car numbers and size, notably the rise in SUVs. Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), heavily promoted by mainstream makers, have very limited range on electric power and their overall economy is often no better than a small petrol car. Surveys show that most drivers fail to make the most of their potential savings.

Ending sales of new fossil-fuelled cars in 2030, and hybrids in 2035, are positive steps, but lack the necessary strategic planning. The UK Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan, originally scheduled for late 2020, then delayed until the spring, has still not appeared. The extra £20 million grants for electric vehicle charging points will not address the main barrier: not so much a shortage of charging points as a variety of suppliers, subscription arrangements and connections. The situation is crying out for ministers to ditch their default mode of leaving it to the market and to start knocking manufacturers’ heads together for ‘Link ATM’-style standards.

But it will be a mistake to replace the current cohort of vehicles with electric or even hydrogen, on grounds of congestion, particle pollution (from tyres irrespective of vehicle type) and raw material supply. The car ownership divide also both reflects and reinforces social inequalities. Of course, one tragic effect of the pandemic has been the shift from public to private transport, which government at all levels needs quickly to work to reverse.

The CCC stresses the virtues for societal shifts to cycling, car sharing, home working and online shopping. Rail transport needs to migrate from diesel to electric power, using batteries and hydrogen for less busy lines. We need to see real evidence of such ambitions in advance of COP26.

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