The plan makes clear that the collective work of the UK’s local authorities and sub-national transport bodies will be relied upon to deliver national change on transport decarbonisation. Our towns and cities are where climate action will happen and where community expectations will lie. It is one issue that local authorities cannot simply build their way out of.
While the concept of net zero grabs the headlines, carbon budgets better reflect the substantive reason and scale of the challenge – we cannot emit much, if any, more carbon if we want to avoid the worst of climate change. Without dramatic emission reductions now, we will rapidly consume these budgets and achieving net zero within what remains will be much more disruptive.
Embracing the principles of the Decarbonisation Plan in local transport strategy.
Local government is well informed and motivated to deliver climate action. Over four hundred UK councils have declared climate emergencies, and many have already set targets to be net zero by as soon as 2030.
It is broadly understood within local authorities that infrastructure that benefits private vehicles in general runs counter to this objective, whilst infrastructure for active and shared modes that accelerates modal shift is beneficial. Creating infrastructure now to expedite fuel switching – e.g. EV chargers – is to be encouraged; but continuing to build highway schemes at the current rate using an argument that cars and fleets will be decarbonised in the 2040s will likely exceed carbon budgets prior to 2040 and is not sustainable.
The Transport Decarbonisation Plan acknowledges the need for car use to fall, but is less clear on the actions needed to deliver it. The plan empowers local authorities to explore this but no new funding is provided to enact the scale and pace of change required. Reflecting on the plan, and the fact that budgets for local authorities are constrained, we think the three most effective things for local government to focus on at a strategic level are:
- Refocus investments on sustainable transport infrastructure, like the creation of active travel schemes, and boost measures like placemaking and greening, exploiting co-benefits to be gained from early delivery.
- Consider bold incentives and regulatory measures that can be introduced to rapidly influence travel behaviour and that the provision of new infrastructure alone will not deliver.
- Audit schemes for private vehicles to ensure new road programmes are only taken forward as part of a carbon compliant transport strategy, with impact lessened and mitigation applied.
Reducing whole-life carbon at scale in scheme development and design.
Decarbonisation efforts should not stop once the right type of transport infrastructure priorities have been identified. A scheme’s whole life carbon impact is heavily influenced by the way that the promoter develops and designs a project or programme. Multiplied across an entire portfolio, big carbon savings stand to be made.
For example, the carbon benefit of local cycle infrastructure lies firmly in the ability of a scheme to attract users from private vehicles into cycling via modal shift. If a local authority takes a decision to accommodate cycling infrastructure by widening a highway, carbon intensive construction will be required which will create a net-increase in emissions if levels of uptake, and thus user benefits, are relatively modest. Whilst this should not preclude development of the scheme on policy grounds, steps may need to be taken to reallocate existing road space to make space for cycling provision, reducing the embodied impact and likely costs.
The recent heated debate around emergency active travel provision highlights the challenges that lie ahead for local authorities in communicating the need for, and the urgency of, sustainable transport solutions. Evidence of a scheme’s whole life carbon impact will undoubtedly need to feature more prominently if such debates are to be resolved.
Beyond direct infrastructure impacts on user emissions and embodied carbon, additional opportunities exist to help level out the net impact equation. For example, carbon sequestration through tree planting and opportunities for sustainable energy generation as part of transport projects offer the potential to boost carbon performance, albeit within the constraints of space and funding available.
Minimising the payback period of carbon debt from construction.
The construction stage of a scheme involves a ‘hit’ of carbon at the outset of a new project that represents a ‘carbon debt’ that it can take many years to pay off through operational user benefits. With net zero ambitions as soon as 2030 for some local authorities, measures that minimise this carbon debt are increasingly important.
The PAS2080 standard provides a framework for local authorities to follow to reduce a scheme’s impact through a hierarchy of building nothing, less, clever and efficiently. Practical means of reducing embodied carbon through measures such as a lean design process, adopting circular economy principles and minimising material use are important, as is prioritising costs for low carbon construction methods.
Carbon will need to be at the core of local authority thinking.
The Transport Decarbonisation Plan shows the UK government is committed to delivering a net zero transport system and gives greater clarity on the direction of a future policy framework that will support this.
However, there are gaps. It will fall to local government to fill many of them if local and ultimately national carbon budgets are to be met. As an industry, we need to create a carbon literate and ‘carbon conscious’ culture that supports and inspires change at the pace required, elevating decarbonisation to equal standing with job creation and economic recovery in our decision making and priorities.
If you are interested in finding out more about how we believe local government can act positively, now, for a carbon zero future, visit: www.wsp.com/transport-decarb-uk