If we were serious...

4 October 2019

On the 2nd October 2019 Laurence Oakes-Ash gave a presentation to the South West Transport Board on the role of transport in climate change. Below is a transcript of the presentation.

So I was asked to talk about climate change and the implications to transport policy and I guess my starting point for the talk was really the question:

What does the declaration of a climate emergency actually mean?

Do I personally think there is a climate emergency? Yes. Have I personally joined Extinction Rebellion? No. Have I stopped driving? Certainly not. Have I stopped flying? I’m trying… but the truth is when I hear that the jones are on their second holiday this year, the debate turns from what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint to all the reasons why we’ve also earned a holiday.

So I’m not going to stand here and virtue signal all the things we should be doing because, firstly, I am personally not doing them and secondly, the last thing you want is a hypocrite suggesting that it should be easy when in fact, the change that is required is simply profound, it’s magnitude on a level we have never experienced and requiring of a pace we’ve hitherto been unable to deliver. But it’s here, this is the situation we face. And so, my talk is called “If we were serious about climate change”. I’m going to set out the things we would be doing if we were serious.

The implicit message there is that within our current policies and actions, there is limited evidence of seriousness and certainly no evidence of the behaviours that one might expect if we truly felt we were in an emergency.

So, given that 322 councils and the government have now declared a climate emergency what behaviours might we expect. I’ve identified 7 key things we would do differently, if we were truly serious about climate change. These are…

  • Adopt Clear Targets and Trajectories Based on Science (not economics)
  • Change the project funding algorithm
  • Stop building stuff that needs retrofitting
  • Start addressing excess demand
  • Finally reinvent buses
  • Worry about unintended consequences well in advance
  • And finally, optimise and keep optimising

Targets Plus Trajectories Based on Science

The first thing to note is that if we’re going to do it properly, we must adopt targets based on science. From a scientific point of view the only thing that matters is the carbon budget. That’s the amount of carbon that we are putting into the atmosphere, the carbon that will stay there heating the planet for the next 100 or so years. The carbon that we added to the atmosphere getting here today, having the lights on and heating our coffee. The carbon budget is a very different number to the government’s 2050 target.

"Long term targets have no scientific basis" - Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy & Climate Change, University of Manchester

If we want the best chance of limiting climate change to 1.5’C the maximum amount of carbon we can put into the atmosphere is 420 billion tonnes [^1]. That’s our true carbon budget. That’s the limit. Globally. Now we currently emit 42 billion tonnes per year – if emissions were to stay at this level, the global carbon budget would be exhausted at the beginning of 2028. For the last two years, global carbon emissions have been rising – obviously, the more they rise the faster the budget will be exhausted. It’s that simple.

We can argue about what the budget might be and what level of warming might be ‘acceptable’ but the more time spent arguing, the less time is spent doing. Any elapsed time reduces the budget – so, if we were serious about climate change we would actively be applying a carbon cost to strategizing – especially strategies that take a year or more to arrive.

There’s a great paper by Professor Tim Jackson at the University of Surrey who puts these targets into a UK context. He derives a ‘fair carbon budget’ for the UK of around 2.5 billion tonnes. This might be the kind of target we’d adopt if we were serious about climate change since this is the budget that stands the best chance of limiting warming to below 1.5C.

But what would this mean for the UK in practice? Well, there are a couple of ways to measure out carbon emissions – on a production basis (what we directly create) and on a consumption basis (what we create directly and indirectly). If we’re being serious, we’d obviously account for our entire contribution. But let’s look at both.

On a production basis, UK Carbon emissions in 2018, were 364 million tonnes. If emissions continue at this level, the UK’s budget would be exhausted by 2025. To stay within budget, we’d need to reduce emissions by 15% per year. Note - production-based emissions have only been falling at a rate of around 4% per year.

Measured on a consumption basis, UK emissions are about 60% higher. To stay within this budget on this basis we’d need to cut emissions by 24% per year. Now emissions on a consumption basis have been falling by only 1.5% per year.

The only year when emission reductions have come anywhere close to the sorts of reductions that would be required was 2009 – during the financial crisis when the great recession drove considerable drops in demand.

Suffice to say, the implications of this analysis for the UK are profound. Firstly, these pathways are vastly more challenging than our existing pathway. The Net zero target for 2050 could in fact lead to a ‘carbon overdraft’ of more than five times the UK’s ‘fair carbon budget’.

Secondly, remaining within any budget depends inherently on the emissions pathway adopted. Professor Jackson therefore argues that we need a target and a trajectory.

And thirdly, with a fixed carbon budget, each year the target is not achieved, the task in subsequent years becomes significantly hardly. In these circumstances, it makes little sense to have a target date of 2050.

So let’s look at the implications for transport

At a national level, transport is now the largest contributor to CO2 emissions. While emissions from other sectors have fallen dramatically since 1990, emissions from transport have reduced by barely 1%. In an average local authority transport is 35.5% of all emissions [^2] namely because the transport sector itself is still 98% reliant on fossil fuel.

According to Committee for Climate Change Surface transport emissions need to fall 46% between 2017 and 2030 to be on track to meet the government’s current commitments [^3].

Professor Jillian Anable at ITS Leeds said the following: “Given its failure to achieve any net reductions since 1990, the transport sector has only 11 years in which to achieve 40 years’ worth of carbon reductions”

You’ll be glad to know that the Committee on climate change monitors indicators of progress towards key policy actions such as improvements to insulation of buildings and the market share of electric vehicles. In 2018, only seven out of 24 of these indicators were on track [^4]. The Government's own projections demonstrate that its policies and plans are currently insufficient to meet the official targets.

Current policy depends heavily on efficiency gains. You can see that efficiency gains in new vehicles made progress between 2010 and 2016, but in recent years the CO2 intensity is once again increasing, namely as a result of our increasing preference for SUVs. Progress on reducing emissions from cars has effectively stalled and electric vehicle sales are tracking below where they need to be.

Efficiency matters, because anything that’s not delivered through efficiency needs to come from somewhere else. Depending on efficiency and aviation pathways, the required vehicle mile reduction by 2030 could therefore be anywhere between 15%-60%.

Now, if we were serious about climate change, we probably need know which one it is – what are we targeting? Is it 15% or 60%? Then to deliver it we’d have a vehicle mile budget. And second of all, if we were serious, we’d allocate that budget regionally and deliver appropriate funding and powers to make it possible.

Change the Project Funding Algorithm

So that bring me to funding. Often when we think of project funding we think of WebTAG. As transport planners it’s fairly easy to complain about WebTAG and spot the inconsistencies against current policy whether its:

  • Differences in values of time between drivers on business (£22) and cyclists (£17)
  • No distinction between car passengers or drivers
  • The current electric vehicle assumptions

But the funding algorithm starts upstream of WebTAG with decisions that we are rarely privy to. The fact is the government makes decisions all the time which have a considerable effect on what is funded and how attractive different modes are likely to be.

Consider the divergence in travel costs for each of these different modes since 1987. The cost of driving has undershot RPI over that period while the cost of using trains has increased by 300% and buses by over 350% [^5].

One of the key annual decisions in this regard is the policy to fix fuel duty. Just look how many times the Office of Budget Responsibility has revised its forecasts in light of the, now routine policy choice to hold fuel duty steady. It is worth considering that had fuel duty increased in line with inflation, revenues would now be £9bn a year higher than they currently are. This implicit subsidy is now worth more than 22.5x the total money we spend on cycling every year.

So let’s look at the break down of expenditure. In 2017/18 the government allocated £26bn for transport in England. This comprised £8.1bn on local and national roads (this excludes money through European Structural Growth Funds, contributions from developers and other sources of road funding), £15.5bn on the railway, £2.1bn on buses and only £400m on cycling and walking which is only 1.5% of the total public expenditure.

How can we be expected to deliver modal shift when we don’t have control over the two key drivers to deliver it? How can we be expected to deliver modal shift when we have limited influence over the relative cost of different modes and the decision of how much investment to allocate to each mode?

So, if we wanted to start being serious about climate change, what might a potential budget look like. Well it might look something like this.

2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
Income from Fuel Duty Normalisation (1,800) (3,600) (5,400) (7,200) (9,000)
National Roads 3,420 3,420 3,420 3,420 3,420 3,420
Local Roads 4,703 4,703 4,703 4,703 4,703 4,703
Local Public Transport 2,122 2,122 3,022 3,922 4,822 5,722
Railway 15,540 15,540 15,540 15,540 15,540 15,540
Other Transport 636 2,436 3,336 4,236 5,136 5,722
Total 26,421 26,421 26,421 26,421 26,421 26,421
of which: cycling and walking 400 2,200 3,100 4,000 4,900 5,800

Simply a normalization of fuel duty over five years would enable us to commit to £20bn of funding for active travel (equivalent to 14,000 km of new cycle paths) and a further £8.6bn in buses over the period. That’s if we were starting to be serious.

Stop building stuff that already needs retrofitting

So next we move from budgets to buildings. The simple principle being that, if we’re serious about climate change, we can no longer afford to build things that require retrofitting. If we were serious about climate change we’d be questioning the accepting wisdom that we need all these new houses. The Transport Planning Society did just this in their 2017 response to the Government’s housing white paper [^6]. For today, the most important thing is to consider the knock on effect of housing policy on transport.

The Transport Planning Society argued that the market incentive for builders, is to choose the most profitable development sites from the surplus of land made available.

These tend to be greenfield sites for dispersed small to medium sized developments of high-priced housing.

Such developments add disproportionately to demand for… wait for it… Private vehicles!

They set it out as follows:

If housing policy is effectively to maximise numbers and transport policy is to support housing then we have a vicious circle that only leads to one thing.

Transport has a crucial part to play in place-making, but the performance of the transport system itself is critically dependent on how well place-making is done.

If we were serious about climate change we’d essentially follow the advice the Transport Planning Society has already given - namely favoring development in locations that make good use of existing and planned transport networks, and sites that minimize the need to travel by unsustainable modes.

Deal with Excess

So that’s new demand, but what about existing demand? Now, this is the least comfortable part of this talk since actively reducing demand feels like a very anti-growth approach. However, my goal is to simply present the trade-offs, some important observations, and the suggestion that not all demand is created equal.

With a fixed carbon budget, anything we fail to meet through efficiency and modal shift, would need to be solved through demand reduction. The more new demand is created by our housing policies, the bigger a gap we create. It seems unbelievable that we would need to reduce vehicle miles by 15%-60% but remember the UK’s climate targets are locked into law and those projections only result from the fact we are currently missing efficiency targets and have limited control over aviation. As a result, there are multiple scenarios where you could envisage existing patterns of demand needing to be looked at very seriously. Yet surprisingly little is known about who exactly is contributing to the problem and the extent to which different groups would be affected by specific policies. What we do know is that some individuals make a disproportionate contribution to overall CO2 emissions.

If we rank the transport emissions from individuals, however we cut the data, we find that a small number of users contribute far more than the majority.

This research shows that the top 10% of emitters are responsible for 43% of emissions while the bottom 10% for only 1% [^7]. If the top 10% reduced their emissions to the value of the average EU citizen, then we could cut overall emissions by a third. A third!

I know what you’re thinking – who are these people? Well, if you’ve got two cars and taken more than one holiday this year, then its highly likely that you’re in this group.

Fortunately, we know that what’s acceptable can change through time - successful campaigns such as those targeting drink driving, or smoking demonstrate what can be done with concerted effort. In a climate emergency, surely more targeted behavior change targeting excess would no longer be a taboo.

Reinvent the bus

So yes, we need to be bolder at reducing high end demand, but we also need to do much more to make other modes more attractive, higher quality, making much better use of modern marketing and data. As Enrique Penesola notes:

“An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.”

Buses provide an incredibly flexible asset with each fully laden double decker taking up to 75 cars off the road and could have a major impact on the productivity gap [^8].

There is already a lively debate around new mobility, the role of shared vehicles and mobility as a service. But in this debate, there is too much focus on what might happen as a result of new technologies and not enough focus on what has to happen to finally find solutions to a problem that has for too long proved intractable.

The deregulation of bus services outside London in the 1980s was meant to address the steady decline in bus use since the 1950s and bring in a new era of bus travel. However, in recent years the decline in buses has only become more pronounced. Since 2010, local authorities have reduced their support for bus services by 46% - over the same time period over 3,000 routes have been reduced, altered or withdrawn.

We now have lots of models for bus services in England – voluntary partnerships, quality partnership schemes, advanced quality partnerships, quality contract schemes, franchising, Enhanced partnerships. Many of these models have not been enacted either through complexity, cost or other business critical activities.

But for me, when some of the best funded technology companies like City Mapper, pull out of bus service redesign citing regulation ^9, then this is clear evidence of the difficulties innovating in this space. With all the talk of New Mobility there is scant evidence of genuine success in operational innovation.

There were 8.5 million concessionary passes in England in 2017/18. I would argue that the current bus provision is designed around customers that don’t pay at the expense of the additional revenue that could be captured from, for example business or leisure users.

For too long under the current system we’ve:

  • Failed to understand customers with a potential to pay
  • We’ve failed to offer routes and services that target those customers
  • And we’ve failed to find mechanisms to move profit from high profitability services to fund more marginal services.

Regulation and the pace of regulatory could be argued to be okay for peace time, but in a climate emergency, we need to be on a war footing with bus regulation. If we’re serious about the climate emergency we need this to change fast.

Worry in advance about unintended consequences

What I’ve talked about so far represents immense change, both in terms of scale and in terms of pace. If we’re serious about climate change we naturally need to identify solutions and back them. But in our analysis, we can’t also forget to evaluate the consequences of these decisions. To highlight this issue, I point to a letter authored by the Natural History Museum to the Committee on Climate Change.

The letter explains that even to meet the UK electric car targets for 2050 we would need to produce just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s current copper production. It’s the scale that is simply inconceivable - Moving at scale in any direction is likely to create huge implications for our natural resources, let alone the investment, skills, supply chains and infrastructure that will be needed.

“Society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these”. - Prof. Richard Herrington

Extrapolated to 2 billion cars worldwide, the energy demand for extracting and processing the metals is almost 4 times the total annual UK electrical output. If we’re serious about climate change the cost of these efforts, the cost of this transition, also needs to be accounted for within our carbon budgets.

So, I’m afraid the picture, if we want to be serious about climate change is fairly daunting. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. And it’s no wonder that it feels like change is just too hard. On the one had we have this immovable object of politics and processes and strategy periods and consultations and regulations. And on the other side we have nature. And faced with the human elements of this problem it often feels easier to think that nature will just behave. Unfortunately, the science is fairly unanimous about what nature is going to do.

But I wanted to end on a positive note, in particular by highlighting an area where we can begin making an immediate difference, an area that could offer us some low hanging fruit, and an area where here in the South West we have the expertise and skills to do so much more. And that’s modelling and optimisation.

Optimise and keep optimizing

With increased computer power we are now able to model systems in completely new ways and we have deep expertise – both in the University of Exeter, the University of Plymouth, and of course in companies in the region.

In a world where win-win options are thin on the ground, optimisation enables us to explore the evidence that can support everything from simple modifications of traffic lights all the way through to first- and last- mile systems. Through optimisation approaches we can identify inefficiencies within systems and then model alternatives. It’s is effectively a way to identify efficiencies that can be gained today, not necessarily for “free”, but very often through simple changes.

Modelling and Optimisation techniques can be used to save money or re-design services across a broad range of areas. For example, the University of Aberdeen developed a tool to increase efficiency in rural transport provision, saving £114,000 on taxi fares [^10].

In Boston, optimisation approaches have saved $5m by designing new school bus routes, through simple changes to school opening and closing times [^11].

Our own work with Urban Traffic Control is showing how we can potentially shave 8% from journey times through reprogramming of traffic lights and our work with the University of Exeter demonstrated how wider system designs could encourage up to 48% of vehicles off the road. So while optimisation is not going to solve everything we need to do for the climate emergency, it’s an approach we should take regardless of the climate emergency.

So to summarise - It’s very difficult to see how existing policies demonstrate the level of seriousness required to address climate change but, if we are going to be serious, there are 7 key areas where we need to focus.

  • Adopt Clear Targets and Trajectories Based on Science (not economics)
  • Change the project funding algorithm
  • Stop building stuff that needs retrofitting
  • Start addressing excess demand
  • Finally reinvent buses
  • Worry about unintended consequences well in advance
  • And finally, optimise and keep optimizing.


[^1]: Jackson, T., 2019. Zero Carbon Sooner: The case for an early zero carbon target for the UK. Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity Working Paper. Available at: https://www.cusp.ac.uk/themes/aetw/zero-carbon-sooner/

[^2]: BEIS, UK local authority and regional carbon dioxide emissions national statistics: 2005-2017. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-local-authority-and-regional-carbon-dioxide-emissions-national-statistics-2005-to-2017

[^3]: Jillian Anable, 2019. Rearranging Elephants on the Titanic: Key note presentation from UTSG Annual Conference. Available at: https://www.creds.ac.uk/rearranging-elephants-on-the-titanic-jillian-anables-keynote-presentation-from-utsg-annual-conference/

[^4]: Committee on Climate Change

[^5]: House of Commons Library, Railways: fare statistics, 20 November 2018, page 5. Available at: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06384#fullreport

[^6]: For an interesting discussion on this, see the Transport Planning Society response to the Government’s Housing White Paper. For additional arguments against the rationale underpinning the housing policy see: Mulheirn, 2019.

[^7]: Brand, C., Boardman, B., 2008. Taming of the few – The unequal distribution of greenhouse gas emissions from personal travel in the UK. Energy Policy36, 224-238

[^8]: See: https://www.citymetric.com/transport/birmingham-isn-t-big-city-peak-times-how-poor-public-transport-explains-uk-s-productivity for a useful discussion.

[^10]: Mounce et al., 2015. Available at: https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/08/boston-bus-routes-public-school-busing-algorithm-data-map/596221/

[^11]: City Science, 2018, Roads for the Future