If the coronavirus didn't monopolise all your attention in March, you may have seen that the UK Government published "Decarbonising Transport Setting the Challenge". This document will shape the UK Government's Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) for how the transport sector should reach net zero. This is being prepared in advance of the UK hosting the UN's annual climate change conference COP26 in Glasgow in 2021.
Transport is currently the sector with the highest carbon emissions. As a result, there is a lot of focus on how each aspect of transport can decarbonise and reach net zero. But a detailed focus on how to decarbonise each aspect of transport can risk missing the big picture of how best to reduce carbon emissions of transport overall.
Rail freight has an important role to play here. It is already the best way to decarbonise freight on land over long distances. It emits about 25 per cent of the gases with global warming potential of road freight for the equivalent journey. So, given that there is this huge 75 per cent carbon emission saving to be made today - even with using diesel locomotives - it seems obvious that this should be a central plank of any plan to decarbonise the transport of goods.
However, this is not what is currently envisaged for the TDP. The strategic priorities identified fail to mention rail freight at all - risking rail freight's proven role in decarbonisation falling through the cracks. To avoid this, our response suggests rail freight's inclusion in the "movement of goods" strategic priority and giving rail freight a representative on the new Net Zero Transport Council.
The Government states it will "take on a leadership role and work closely with other countries to...give a clear signal...that the transition to zero emission transport technologies is really happening". However, the UK has not yet taken that leadership role on the decarbonisation of freight. The EU's Green Deal clearly states that as "a matter of priority, a substantial part of the 75 per cent of inland freight carried today by road should shift onto rail and inland waterways". To be truly world leading on decarbonisation, the UK Government should, as a minimum, match the EU's commitment.
It is disappointing that there is no indication that the Government will state what level of modal shift it wants to see from road to rail and water in the plan. Our response urges the Government to ensure that either the cross-modal freight strategy which will be published later this year or the TDP should set out a target for modal shift and include it within a TDP strategic priority. Achieving modal shift has challenges, but any level of modal shift will reduce carbon emissions and should be pursued. Setting a modal shift target would help achieve this.
England has already fallen behind Scotland in this respect where there is a 7.5 per cent rail freight growth target. The document states that "whilst the Climate Change Act 2008 and the commitment to reaching net zero by 2050 is UK-wide, some levers to cut emissions from transport may be held and best implemented by the devolved administrations" and that the Government will acknowledge "the positive steps already taken towards implementing a clean transport system". However, it does not seem to do so. The steps taken by devolved administrations such as Scotland's rail freight growth target or the availability of the freight facilities grants (withdrawn in England) are not listed as current policies relating to rail freight.
We have urged the Government to ensure that the devolved administrations' policies are clearly reflected in the final text of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan. It would be strange to discuss the plan at COP26 in Glasgow and not make any reference to the policies of the host country. For the UK's transport system to decarbonise quickly and efficiently, the Transport Decarbonisation Plan must give a clear picture of what is being done in every nation. It should be a document which allows the picture in the whole UK to be easily understood. This will create a better understanding of how the UK is decarbonising as a whole and enable different nations to learn from what is effective elsewhere.
These criticisms should not detract from the many positive things the document proposes for the plan, which is at the start of a consultative process to arrive at the final text. The changes we suggest would ensure that the UK really is leading the world at COP26.