Powering Up Britain document concentrates disproportionately on energy matters with transport relegated to the sidelines
Rishi Sunak visited Culham Science Centre last week
Powering Up Britain. And Levelling Up too. So much weight on one preposition. So many hopes. So much disappointment.
Powering Up Britain, the document, published by the government last week setting out their plans to reach Net Zero, can be read as an encouraging sign that the government has this issue on its agenda – essential for tackling climate change but important too in lessening the country’s reliance on fossil fuel supplies from often dodgy countries, while also helping build a domestic industry to meet the needs of the future.
The government describes its contents as delivering “a world-leading position in achieving Net Zero”.
To be fair, its contents are not entirely devoid of merit but the hard fact is that the government is only publishing its Powering Up Britain strategy because it was forced to by a High Court judgement last July, which ruled that the plan at that time was not detailed enough to show how the UK would meet its goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero by 2050.
The revised strategy has not been well received by those who understand the challenge.
Dr Chris Jones, an expert in climate change at the University of Manchester, said: “This latest government energy strategy is a weak response to the UK’s zero carbon energy needs. The regressive measures on fossil fuels won’t make any real impact on our bills and energy security, but they are enough to downgrade the UK’s role as a leader in tackling climate change.”
Friends of the Earth, who were part of the team who brought the legal case against the last plan, have threatened to go back to the High Court.
The paper concentrates disproportionately on energy matters with transport relegated to the sidelines. Yet while CO2 emissions from the energy sector have fallen significantly since 1990, transport emissions have barely shifted, and transport is now the sector responsible for the largest segment of CO2 emissions.
As far as the energy sector itself is concerned, only limited attention is given to energy efficiency or energy conservation, and there is no repeal of what is in effect a ban on onshore wind development – a ludicrous policy. Those opposing what to my mind are elegant structures seem not to have noticed or to mind the miles of ghastly electricity pylons that stretch across our beautiful countryside.
Instead, we have the government majoring on carbon capture and storage, also described as “world-beating” in the document. This has in fact been promised for well over a decade but we still seem no nearer to its realisation.
For those of my generation, or older, it is like Billy Bunter’s postal order – always just about to arrive but never actually turning up. Or to pick a more modern equivalent, like nuclear fusion, the holy grail into which successive governments have poured millions without result. Still, it keeps lots of men in white coats in Culham in Oxfordshire in employment.
The government message in energy appears to be that we can largely carry on as we have, and scientific advancement, as yet unproven, will save us in the future. Jam tomorrow
So the government message in energy appears to be that we can largely carry on as we have, and scientific advancement, as yet unproven, will save us in the future. Jam tomorrow.
That perhaps explains how Rishi Sunak was apparently intensely relaxed about spending £500,000 of taxpayers’ money in just two weeks on private jet travel, and with a carbon footprint that will have catapulted him into the top 1% of carbon emitters, if he wasn’t already there.
Powering Up Britain follows the very long tome commissioned from the Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, and published in January.
Mr Skidmore, a former energy minister (and perhaps fortunately never a road safety minister), likewise concentrated on the energy sector with just four out of 129 recommendations aimed at the Department for Transport. The words “public transport” do not even appear, although he does refer to modal shift when referring to the need to decarbonise the freight sector.
I have struggled to find the words “public transport” in Powering Up Britain either, though I cannot believe they are not in there somewhere.
Instead, we have a document that seems to see transport almost exclusively through the windscreen of the automobile. In their blinkered view, the challenge of meeting Net Zero in transport is going to be through the roll-out of electric vehicles. Oh, and sustainable aviation fuels, another candidate for the Billy Bunter postal order award. More jam tomorrow.
Now there is no question that we do need a swift roll-out of electric vehicles and the government has been ambitious in setting 2030 as the end date for the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, and 2035 for hybrid models.
This now looks even more ambitious in the light of backtracking by the EU, which I hope we will not follow. There, after pressure from the powerful German car lobby, they now propose to allow petrol and diesel models to continue to be available after 2035 where these are powered by so-called e-fuels, a synthetic alternative to petrol based on CO2 and hydrogen. More jam tomorrow. And of course if by say 2033, no such fuel is available, then the 2035 date will have to be put back, won’t it, to allow manufacturers time to adjust.
The German car industry has form when it comes to resisting environmental improvements. When I was a minister, I helped negotiate a reasonable outcome on future maximum vehicle emissions across the EU. It all seemed cut and dried. The next thing I knew, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, under pressure from her car industry, had phoned the PM, David Cameron, who then agreed to water down what had been painfully negotiated in return for something quite inconsequential.
It also has form in fiddling the figures when it comes to quantifying carbon emissions from its vehicles.
The government here is right to consult on a minimum target for the percentage of car and van sales that must be zero emission by a particular date. That approach, reminiscent of one often used in California, will concentrate the minds of manufacturers and give confidence to consumers.
There is also £381m to accelerate the installation of EV charging infrastructure, and a further £15m for on-street charging schemes.
They will, however, not necessarily deal with the uneven availability of public EV chargers, which in turn feeds into range anxiety among some drivers, itself a bar to uptake.
London and the south-east is relatively well catered for, other areas less so. Of the approximate 37,000 charging devices, only 2,400, or 6.4%, are in Wales, for instance.
However the greatest objection to what the government has announced is not its EV plans, but what it hasn’t announced.
The government has prioritised helping car drivers and airline passengers, just as they did in the recent budget when fuel duty was frozen yet again and air passenger duty was actually cut.
Rather than relying on jam tomorrow when technology comes to the rescue in future decades – if it ever does – they could be making real progress towards net zero now
Yet rather than relying on jam tomorrow when technology comes to the rescue in future decades – if it ever does – they could be making real progress towards net zero now. And of course all the scientific evidence says we need real progress now, not at some distant date.
The simple answer is to encourage modal shift onto bus and rail. The ways to do so are not complicated. As I set out in a recent edition of Passenger Transport, and as experiments in Germany and elsewhere have shown, if the price is right, people will flock to public transport, cutting carbon emissions.
Another well tested method is to introduce comprehensive bus priority measures – bus lanes and advantageous traffic light phasing – and again people will readily switch to the bus.
A third is to disincentivise car use, for example through Nottingham’s excellent workplace charging scheme, or through steep car parking charges, as in Brighton.
Now the government has been supportive throughout the pandemic and beyond to the rail and bus industries, but the fact is that while road traffic has recovered to pre-Covid levels, both bus and rail levels are still noticeably down.
The consequence of reduced patronage is all too predictable. As the recent report from the Transport Select Committee noted, since the launch of Bus Back Better in March 2021, bus passenger numbers are down 23%, and services 28% down.
If the government really wants to see the step change they say they want, and if they really want to deliver Net Zero, then they have to make public transport more attractive, and they need to be prepared to take on the car driver and the air passenger.
Buses and trains will continue to be kept on life support, while the government panders to those polluting most, on the road and in the air
Yet sadly there is no indication that they intend to follow this course. Instead, buses and trains will continue to be kept on life support, while the government panders to those polluting most, on the road and in the air.
And of course there is another consequence of failing to encourage modal shift, or in fact encouraging reverse modal shift by making public transport more expensive and car use cheaper: more congestion on our roads.
They promise jam tomorrow. What they are delivering is jam today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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