Government plans to increase UK road traffic by 40% by 2040 could hit climate targets

As with anticipated growth in numbers of air passengers, the government also tries to predict future numbers of cars. As with air passengers, forecasts of road vehicle numbers made 10 – 15 years ago have proved to be wildly too high, with much less growth than had been expected.  The government is now predicting that road traffic will grow by 40% by 2040 as the UK’s population and economy expand over the next few decades.  It is banning planners from taking climate change into account when deciding whether new roads should be built. The stance has been criticised by the Campaign for Better Transport.  The government argues the traffic increase won’t affect plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the sector, but it hasn’t justified how.  In June 2013 the government announced the “biggest-ever upgrade of our existing roads, worth up to £50 billion over the next generation.”  Road and rail travel currently account for about 20% of the UK’s carbon emissions. Government advisor the CCC suggests CO2 emissions from cars, vans and trains need to reduce by 40% between 2010 and 2030, if the government is going to hit its targets under the Climate Change Act. Meanwhile aviation has – at best – a vague target to return its emissions to their 2005 level by 2050. 
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Government plans to increase road traffic by 40% could hit climate targets

  • 5th  Feb 2014, (The Carbon Brief)
  • by Robin Webster

The government predicts road traffic will increase by two fifths by 2040 – and it’s banning planners from taking climate change into account when deciding whether new roads should be built. The government argues this won’t affect plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the sector, but it hasn’t justified its position.

Last June, chancellor George Osborne announced the ” largest programme of investment in our roads for half a century”. The government is going to plough £50 billion into the country’s roads, remedying decades of underinvestment, it says.

The government wants to increase road capacity as the UK’s population and economy expands over the next few decades. Campaign group, the Campaign for Better Transport, disagrees. It says the government is ” outrageously” ignoring its climate commitments, in order to press ahead with road expansion.

The government’s plans for road expansion 

The following graph, taken from a government document, illustrates planned traffic growth over the next few decades. The coloured lines illustrate differing levels of growth, dependent on what happens to the country’s economy and population:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 At 16.58.28

Source: Road transport forecasts 2013. Department for transport. In its central case (the red line), traffic increases by 42 per cent between 2010 and 2040.  

There’s an obvious tension here between the government’s commitment to increasing road travel, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Road and rail travel currently account for about a fifth of the UK’s carbon emissions. Government advisor the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) suggests surface transport emissions – emissions from cars, vans and trains – need to reduce by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2030, if the government is going to hit its targets under the climate change act.

The government predicts transport emissions will fall until 2030, and then rise again as demand increases. The committee tells us its modeling only goes up to 2030, so it can’t say whether a 40 per cent increase in traffic by 2040 is compatible with the government’s climate targets, or not.

The government also says road developments will have a ” very small” impact on the country’s emissions. But it doesn’t explain how it works this out.

Achieving emissions cuts 

Local planners could take the emissions-impacts of new roads into account when making decisions as to whether individual roads should go ahead or not. The CCC appears tosupport this approach. It says:

“it is important that transport emissions are factored into planning decisions alongside other costs and benefits.”

In its draft plans, the Department for Transport (DfT) explicitly forbids this approach, however. It says “while individual [road] schemes may result in an increase in carbon emissions”, planners should not take climate emissions into account when making decisions.

The DfT takes this position because it believes its carbon plan will ensure emissions go down. In other words, it argues its policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions elsewhere will offset the increase in carbon from new roads.

Saved by efficient cars? 

The transport section of the carbon plan explains how the government intends to cut emissions from the transport sector. Over the next decade, it says it will focus on the “easy wins” in surface transport – incentivising more efficient car engines and the use of sustainable biofuels as fuel.

In the 2020s, the document says “we will move towards the mass market roll-out of ULEVs [ultra low emission vehicles]” – vehicles powered by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or sustainable biofuels.

There aren’t any numbers in the document showing how a 40 per cent increase in traffic will be squared with emissions reductions, but the government appears to be arguing ULEVs will play a major part in fixing the problem. According to this argument, it can dramatically increase the number of vehicles on the road without increasing carbon emissions.

This creates two possible problems, however.

First, takeup of ULEVs [ultra low emission vehicles] may not proceed as rapidly as the government claims. Professor Jillian Anable, an expert on transport and climate change from the university of Aberdeen, tells Carbon Brief the government’s predictions for the rate at which ULEVs will expand is “really quite optimistic”.  Decarbonisation of the car fleet by the middle of the century is “far, far from certain”, she adds.

Second, the government may need to tackle transport demand in addition to encouraging takeup of fuel-efficient cars, if it’s going to hit its climate change targets. The carbon plan mentions a few projects intended to encourage people to travel less by car, but clearly doesn’t see this as a priority.

The CCC, which uses government modelling as the basis for its calculations, agrees car travel will go up by 2030, by about a fifth.  But it also says voluntary reductions in car use – achieved through fewer trips, more travel by public transport, and more walking and cycling – could reduce car and van travel by 5% by 2030, relative to what it would have been.

Locked into a car-dependent future 

The government seems quite focused on expanding the country’s road network, however. In the DfT paper ‘ Action for Roads‘, it argues the road network is “vital to our nation” and must be made “fit for the future”.

It says the government’s carbon plan will explain how the government can both dramatically increase the amount of traffic on the road and reduce emissions. It mainly appears to be relying on fuel efficient cars to achieve this.

But experts have doubts about whether this technological fix is the right approach. Professor Anable tells us:

“History tells us that road expansion generates more traffic, and more road use. If we build roads, but don’t manage to decarbonise car use, we could be in a worse place than before.”

Professor Anable argues that the government has a choice. It’s choosing to create a future in which we’re more and more dependent on cars. But the longer that goes on, the harder it is to reverse – and the more difficult, and expensive, it is to reduce transport emissions.

 

Update 5th February: A separate point has been made by some twitter correspondents, who argue the Department for Transport has a history of over-projecting future growth in traffic. 

In its draft planning document, the DfT says its modelling has “performed well in the past at forecasting traffic levels”. But according to a recent article in ENDS magazine, previous government projections of “massive growth” in traffic failed to materialise. 

This argument is illustrated in the following graph, created by the Campaign for Better Transport. The coloured lines show the government’s predictions for how much car traffic was going to increase – and when those predictions were made. The black line shows what actually happened:

Df T_forecasts _traffic _growth

 

http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2014/02/government-plans-to-increase-road-traffic-by-40-per-cent-could-hit-climate-targets/

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By contrast with air passenger forecasts:

 

New Air traffic forecasts: Government expects growth in air travel to slow down considerably

30.1.2013The Department for Transport expects the rate of growth in air travel to slow down considerably over the coming decades.  Their passenger forecasts published late yesterday expect demand for air travel to increase by just 1%-3% a year up to 2050 compared to historical growth rates of 5% a year over the last 40 years.  The DfT lists 4 reasons for the slow down in growth for air travel: – higher oil prices; – an end to the decline in average fares seen in the last two decades; – the maturity of the air travel market to and from the UK; – and the availability of alternative modes of travel. The Department estimates that the major South East airports will be full by 2030 but recognizes there is some uncertainty about this: “ there is a range around this projection and they could be full as soon as 2025 or as late as 2040”. The central forecast, taking into account the impact of capacity constraints, is for passenger numbers at UK airports to increase from 219 million passengers in 2011 to 315 million in 2030 and 445 million by 2050. Compared to the DfT forecasts in August 2011, these forecasts are 6% lower for 2030 and 5% lower for 2050. Any proposals for airport expansion must be seen in this light. http://www.airportwatch.org.uk/?p=648The Department for Transport expects the rate of growth in air travel to slow down considerably over the coming decades. 

Their passenger forecasts published late yesterday expect demand for air travel to increase by just 1%-3% a year up to 2050 compared to historical growth rates of 5% a year over the last 40 years.

The Department gives four reasons for the slow down:

– higher oil prices;

– an end to the decline in average fares seen in the last two decades;

– the maturity of the air travel market to and from the UK;

– and the availability of alternative modes of travel.

The Department estimates that the major South East airports will be full by 2030 but recognizes there is some uncertainty about this: “ there is a range around this projection and they could be full as soon as 2025 or as late as 2040”.

John Stewart, chair of HACAN, which represents residents under the Heathrow flight paths, said, “The exact figures about future demand may be uncertain but the trend is unmistakable:  the growth in air travel in the developed world is slowing down.  Any proposals for airport expansion must be seen in this light.”

Link to the full consultation, including the Executive Summary  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/69925/uk-aviation-forecasts.pdf

Graph below of UK air passengers (millions) from AEF:

government forecasts between 2000 and 2013

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Full document at   https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/69925/uk-aviation-forecasts.pdf

by contrast, the forecasts from August 2011 are at  http://assets.dft.gov.uk/publications/uk-aviation-forecasts-2011/uk-aviation-forecasts.pdf

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