A sideways look at economics
In the middle of November, when the 24-hour news cycle was resolutely focused on whether Donald Trump would concede the US election, and debates were raging over whether it was safe to invite your relatives over for Christmas dinner, you’d be forgiven for having missed the Prime Minister’s Green Industrial Revolution announcement. Setting out an “ambitious ten-point plan”, Boris Johnson said he aimed to create up to a quarter of a million jobs in “clean energy, transport, nature and innovative technologies”, with a focus on modernisation, technology, and a switch to clean forms of energy. He wanted the UK to continue to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Accord, all while spurring on economic growth through government and private investment. But is the plan that Mr Johnson announced broad enough in scope to fulfil his characteristically bold ambitions?
Taking a peek at the numbers, the UK has already made reasonable progress on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions over the last 30 years. This has largely been achieved by changing the composition of our energy supply. In particular, the transition away from coal as a fuel for electricity generation has significantly cleaned up emissions in this sector. Government figures for 2018 show that the amount of carbon dioxide produced in energy supply has fallen by 62% since 1990. This is the third largest percentage drop among sectors, only surpassed by waste management (–69%) and industrial processes (–83%) over this period. Notably, the energy supply sector was the top contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 1990, with 36% of all carbon dioxide equivalent emissions generated from this source. In 2018, this now stands at 23%.
Despite this progress, there remain further challenges for the UK in the face of rising consumer and commercial energy demand. While Boris Johnson’s ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ plan goes some distance to addressing these concerns, it can however be criticised for falling short in the sector the UK needs to clean up the most – transport.
Transport emissions only fell by 3% between 1990 and 2018 – the lowest fall across all sectors – meaning that the transport sector now ranks as the highest contributor to carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in the UK. Stuck in first gear, progress has been slow, meaning transport is in desperate need of a clean-up. While you might expect aviation to be the prime culprit, according to detailed source statistics motor vehicles are in fact the top contributors to transport emissions. Passenger cars, heavy goods vehicles and light goods vehicles make up three of the top six polluting sub-sectors, with passenger cars contributing the most in the UK at 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Aviation contributes just 0.3%.
The Prime Minister’s plans for this sector are largely focused on nudging us to switch to electric vehicles, by ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, expanding the charge-points grid, and investing in the development and mass-scale production of electric vehicle batteries. These are all welcome moves, as they should lead to UK citizens replacing millions of fuel-guzzling cars with quieter, cleaner, less-polluting models. As Fathom’s Senior Economist Brian Davidson estimated in a recent climate note, a full switch to electric vehicles combined with a shift towards 100% clean energy production could reduce the US’s carbon emissions by two-thirds. A similar reduction could be expected in the UK, as transport and energy supply account for similar proportions of greenhouse gas emissions in each country. But that is only if we can successfully transition all vehicles and all energy production to clean sources of electricity generation. Failing to do so would only serve to move the source of emissions from the exhaust pipe of your family hatchback, to the flue-gas stack at Pembroke B Power Station.
If the UK is truly to tackle transport emissions, the Prime Minister needs to get serious about dissuading the use of private motor vehicles, and instead, promote clean public transport and active travel options. This is most needed in our cities and towns, where passenger car use has grown at a remarkable rate in the last decade. In London, as the prime example, the number of miles we have driven in cars and taxis on local ‘C and unclassified’ roads has increased approximately 50% since 2009.
These journeys on local roads are precisely the ones that the government should aim to influence. A government policy paper from 2017 published by the former transport minister Chris Grayling identified exactly this, as short car journeys can easily be substituted for walking, cycling, or a trip on public transport. More recently, his successor, Grant Shapps, made £175m of extra funding available for local councils to implement Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN’s), school-streets, pedestrian path widening, and ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes during the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic. This is a start, and further schemes like these should be considered in urban areas where their impact can be felt the most. They should form part of a restructured transport hierarchy, taking inspiration from how Amsterdam has tackled pollution. Accessible public transport (trams and trains) should be combined with an integrated and developed walking and cycling infrastructure to ensure that air quality is increased and air pollution is kept low. Further nudges to influence the public’s behaviour towards active travel would be welcome, as would extra investment into local, clean public transport options.
The government could also be more ambitious with its objectives to tackle LGV and HGV pollution. Currently the Prime Minister only has plans to begin a consultation on phasing out diesel heavy goods vehicles, with no set date at the time of writing for the consultation to begin. If the PM keeps up with his mentions on his own Twitter account then he might have taken encouragement from the success of logistics companies such as PedalMe, which have been at the forefront of disrupting traditional, final-mile delivery supply chains in London. These companies employ e-cargo bikes to deliver goods at faster speeds than motorised vehicles in urban areas — all while benefiting from shorter trip lengths and efficiencies in their strategy of deployment. Other, traditional logistics firms are starting to take note, with cargo bikes, micro-vehicles and electric vehicles being utilised as part of mixed fleet strategies across the UK. Combining these innovations with Urban Freight Consolidation Centres could result in lower emissions and more efficient distribution within the UK’s cities. Any support the government can give to local authorities to back these schemes would be welcome.
Not only might these changes encourage greener travel and logistics, but they have also been shown to offer other benefits which can be felt across society. Active travel leads to reduced traffic congestion and less noise pollution, and has health benefits for its participants, reducing the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, strokes, obesity and respiratory problems. In addition, a shift away from motor vehicle use could lead to fewer injuries and deaths on our roads, where on average five people die in transport accidents every day in England and Wales.
This is not to say that there is no space for motor vehicles in society. But if Boris Johnson’s government is serious about a green industrial revolution, then getting transport cleaned up is fundamental. Adopting additional measures alongside the electrification strategy can help the government achieve this. Not only will they help the UK to reach its goal, but they may also be implemented quicker than an electrification strategy that is only being introduced in 2030 and will take a further decade to have a significant effect. Nonetheless, arguably, the biggest difficulty in this broader approach will come in changing consumer and commercial habits. We place a high value on personal convenience, and motor vehicles tend to offer us this. Only by making public transport and active travel options cheap, convenient, and safe will the government be able to encourage the wider population to change their behaviour patterns and clean up transport emissions in the process.
 There can be no coincidence that navigation apps such as Google Maps (2007), Waze (2008), Citymapper (2011), all became incredibly popular during this period, allowing their users to dart down a back road to avoid the traffic up ahead.
 ONS data show, on average, 89% of children live within 15 minutes of a primary school, travelling by public transport, cycling or walking.