Friends of the Earth report argues Department's emphasis on expanding road infrastructure sidelines climate change concerns
The Department for Transport (DfT) has "gone rogue" on climate change by side-lining legally binding commitments to cut carbon emissions in its plans and strategies, according to an explosive new report released today by Friends of the Earth.
Written by research group Transport for Quality of Life, the study charges the Department with prioritising economic growth and tackling congestion through projects such as road building, instead of focusing on public transport infrastructure and other forms of low-carbon travel.
"DfT has side-lined climate change in its strategies, plans and guidance to local authorities and bodies such as Highways England," the paper concludes. "In other words, the DfT has gone rogue on climate change."
Transport is the largest generator of greenhouses gases in the UK, contributing 27 per cent to total emissions in 2017 according to official figures released in February. Whereas emissions from the energy sector dropped 7.6 per cent through the course of that year, no progress was made on reducing transport emissions, the stats show.
Today's report, commissioned by Friends of the Earth, argues DfT has been too focused on expanding road infrastructure via strategies such as the Transport Investment Strategy, the National Policy Statement for national networks, the Strategic Transport Plans of the sub-national Transport bodies, and Major Road Network guidance. Where the carbon impact of transport is directly addressed - in the Road Investment, Clean Growth and Road to Zero strategies, for example - it is assumed a shift to electric vehicles will be the main factor in meeting carbon reduction goals, the report adds, with little acknowledgement that road expansion is likely to generate more road traffic and increase carbon emissions.
The study also labels DfT's methods for assessing transport schemes "not fit-for-purpose" to take account of carbon impacts. Cost-benefit analyses have "built-in biases that favour road schemes over other options" by placing greater weight on time savings of a few minutes to millions of motorists, it says.
It gives the example of three potential transport projects in North West England - a new road and a two tram projects - assessed by DfT. DfT's methods suggested 90 per cent of the benefits of the road scheme were due to time savings, while the adverse cost of increased CO2 emissions was valued at less than one per cent of the time saving benefits, according to 2015 analysis by the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL.
The report calls on DfT to face stricter accountability against climate targets to tackle these issues. While the Climate Change Act legally requires the government to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, and subsequently established carbon budgets provide reduction milestones leading towards that goal, these only apply on a national level. The report calls for these targets and budgets to be broken down into parameters for individual government departments, as well as regional and local bodies.
It also urges an overhaul of Highways England, arguing it should be tasked with cutting traffic on Britain's roads rather than expanding the network to ease congestion, which incentivises car use.
"The world has woken up to the urgency of the climate crisis and people are rightly demanding action, but it seems that the Department for Transport isn't just stuck in the slow lane but has completely veered off course," said Mike Childs, head of science at Friends of the Earth. "Transport is the single largest climate emitter in the UK - and this government's obsession with road-building and backing for airport expansion is making things worse."
In a strongly worded response to the report, DfT said the assessment was "absolute nonsense." "We recognise that transport currently emits more greenhouse gases than any other sector of the economy, which is why we are driving forward plans to deliver the cleaner, greener transport that Britain needs, including by ending the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040," spokesperson said.
In particular, DfT rejected the charge that their appraisal mechanisms fail to fully account for the impact of carbon emissions, saying the greenhouse gas values in its Transport Analysis Guidance are based on published BEIS guidelines which do not prioritise one type of impact over another.
The Department has repeatedly emphasised its commitment to cutting emissions from the sector. Its Road to Zero Strategy, published in July 2018, promised £1.5bn of investment to drive the transition to zero emission vehicles, and investment has also been announced for low-emission buses and solar trains.
However, the report's criticisms echo past concerns over DfT's climate strategy. In October last year, following the publication of the Road to Zero strategy, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) wrote to the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling letter warning the strategy was "not ambitious enough". The letter - which ran to 15 pages - warned the strategy excluded some of the most "cost-effective" measures to cut road transport emissions, such as supporting domestic and business customers seeking to purchase electric vehicles after 2020.
"Our assessment of existing and newly agreed policies for road transport is that they are insufficient to ensure the reductions in emissions necessary to meet the fifth Carbon Budget in the most cost-effective way," the letter concluded.
So often Defra and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are seen as the leading departments on the climate agenda within government. Today's report suggests there's still a long way to go in making every department of government a 'climate' ministry.
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