TAPAS.network | 4 October 2023 | Commentary | Greg Marsden

Rowing Backwards: The New Politics of Decarbonisation

John Siraut

There has been a substantial reaction to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s policy changes to the Government’s approach to achieving Net Zero, most specifically the commitment to end fossil fuel car sales in 2030, extending the deadline to 2035. But he also sought to present a different way of thinking about the broader policies on the trajectory to the 2050 Net Zero deadline. TAPAS asked Professor Greg Marsden to comment on the implications.

WHAT DOES PRIME MINISTER Rishi Sunak’s announcement on the Government’s Net Zero policy really mean for decarbonisation in transport? A lot was said , but the substance may be less significant than the new mood music now playing, and its implications.

It is probably worth starting by recapping on the things the PM will not be pursuing, or will be delaying, in transport. Actually, it’s just the one – that the phase out of the sale of fossil fuel vehicles will now be moved back from 2030 to 2035. Sunak referred to a number of other things , but “The proposal for government to interfere with how many passengers you can have in your car” was never a government policy; and neither were the “new taxes to discourage flying or going on holiday”. These are not even U-turns. I can’t find the right adjective about these references that seems printable.

Stepping back from the bluster for a moment, the announcements will probably have limited impact on policies from where we stand today. There will still be mandated targets on the pathway up to 2030 for the percentage of new car sales that will be electric. Before we get to 2030 the purchase cost of an EV is expected to be comparable to a fossil fuel car , and running costs are already less - so consumer demand should be high. We can perhaps expect a hit from the 5-year final phase out delay of, I guestimate, up to a year’s worth of current emissions – dependent on how manufacturers and consumers respond. The “hard pressed families”, which the speech mentions, will be operating in the second hand and not the new car market. Actually, leaving them on fossil fuels for longer with the tax regime we currently have in the UK will be hugely regressive as they will continue to pay fuel duty and 20%VAT while EV drivers will only face VAT on domestic energy for the most part. The sales pitch is that delaying the phase out is for the worse off – but it’s quite the reverse. The other announcements, to not implement misrepresented ideas that have simply been floated, just closes off the box of future options somewhat – but makes no difference to the current pathway.

What matters most to me is what we can learn about the politics of climate change, and the wedges and dividing lines and language which is being generated- and promulgated or fanned by parts of the media. This matters to how the problem is being framed, and what solutions are on the table and likely to be funded in the next year.

Two key stand out statements were:

“And when our share of global emissions is less than 1%, how can it be right that British citizens, are now being told to sacrifice even more than others?” and “We’re stuck between two extremes – those who want to abandon Net Zero altogether... and then there are those who argue with an ideological zeal: we must move even faster, and go even further no matter the cost or disruption to people’s lives...”

We are all in ‘camps’ these days, aren’t we? Which camp are you in then? If you want to suggest a policy that someone doesn’t like then you are a zealot. Then we also have ‘What-about-ery’. “Why don’t we wait for China to act?” and “Why are we trying to go faster than the rest of Europe?” At the time of the 2030 phase out announcement this was trumpeted as an example of positive regulatory divergence from Europe – a Brexit opportunity. Now, it seems, divergence is not an opportunity but an unnecessary cost.

What matters most here though is how this gets played back locally – “Why has Nottingham set 2028 as a target?”. “Why not regress to Anytown which has yet to set a target...” Local action on Net Zero in transport is important. Regressing to the slowest performer is a really bad outcome and I feel certain that this will play its way out into local transport plan politics.

What matters too is that government will not be “interfering” or “making you change” or “discouraging” people to do things . Anyone who works in transport knows how important winning hearts and minds is and how difficult establishing more pro-environmental behaviours can be. But there are great examples of where this does work. There was no talk in the speech about creating the conditions for change, just a tightening of the rhetoric that behaviour change is not for government to lead on, but for consumers to choose.

So what role is left for Government- nationally and locally?

Even if you prefer the language of choice – what matters is what choices are put in front of people to choose from (my colleague Jillian Anable has done extensive work on this ). It is now very hard to see the credible conditions for any form of reduction in travel demand being created before the election. Action in the transport sector was already trending well behind the requirements that the Committee on Climate Change set out for it in the 6th carbon budget. The watering down of the phase out of fossil fuels pushes us a bit further out and the lack of impetus on behaviour change and the cutbacks to budgets for active travel tell us that there is no Plan B to backfill this technology shortfall.

I think we should all be concerned not just about what this means to the our ability to meet our carbon budgets, but also how far it sets us back in winning the argument that some travel demand change is actually good for the economy, health and well-being, air quality (oh, and carbon by the way). Why have we not had the Local Transport Plan Guidance and the Quantitative Carbon Reduction guidance? It seems pretty clear that this is currently held in a process of dilution or, plausibly, might not be seen at all .

We should also be mindful of the further game playing with the Net Zero by 2050 Commitment . The Prime Minister said : “we will still meet our international commitments and hit Net Zero by 2050”. 2050 is a distraction, it is the total carbon budget being added to all the time, and not ‘what we do in 2050’, which matters. As Chris Stark, the Chief Executive of the CCC quickly said after the PM’s speech , we were off track for the earlier carbon budget periods before this announcement and it is wishful thinking to suggest that we are now anything other than further off track.

This slight of hand around 2050 is not surprising to me – I hear far too many decision makers and practitioners talking about 2050 as if it is a magic point in the calendar. If we start slow, then we fail fast, because we cannot make up for any more lost time. Particularly if we are leaving half of the toolbox – the behaviour change tools - to one side. The next move, which we already saw in the March 2023 Carbon Budget Delivery Plan, is the increasing role that “negative emission technologies” will play, such as carbon capture and storage. If your “house is on fire” you would probably try and put it out with equipment you knew existed and worked, rather than hoping there was still a bit of your house left for when someone invents a new and more affordable dousing technique. The reliance on negative emission technologies is just the sort of un-costed and un-transparent behaviour which the PM is saying he wishes to call out.

My final note is to give a wry smile to the statement “in a democracy, we must also be able to scrutinise and debate those [policy] changes, many of which are hidden in plain sight – in a realistic manner”. For those that followed my FOI request to get hold of the DfT’s actual thinking and assumptions on what is necessary to be compliant with the 6th carbon budget , or the legal case on the advice on the Net Zero Strategy – transparency from central government has been lacking.

When the PM says “we” it is not quite clear who he means. Maybe I missed something, but there is no accompanying folio of figures which explains the basis of the “fairness” assessment that appears to have been made, nor to justify the emissions increases or savings which will result from different actions. Perhaps those exist somewhere deep in Government – but I don’t think “we” are really meant to see them if they do. It’s just a nice story.

It seems quite clear that these moves are nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics. They threaten progress towards the carbon budgets which were agreed with cross-party consensus less than 3 years ago. Rather than building coalitions and a positive case for change we are in a period of sewing divisions and rowing back. The damage to public trust feels like it could be much more significant that the direct carbon impacts of the policies and ideas which were very publicly being given the chop when Rishi Sunak spoke to the cameras and microphones in number ten Downing Street.

Greg Marsden is Professor of Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds. He has researched issues surrounding the design and implementation of new policies for over 20 years covering a range of issues. He is an expert in climate and energy policy in the transport sector. He is the Principal Investigator on the DecarboN8 network where he is responsible for integrating a new place-based approach to decarbonising transport. 

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT877, 4 October 2023.

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