The Climate Change Act and Transport – 4 Years On

The Climate Change Act (2008) celebrates its fourth birthday today. The Act  sets a world-leading target for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. Four years on I reflect on what this has meant to the transport sector drawing on an on-going research project ( Much more detailed analysis is available through the Committee on Climate Change website.

Transport is described as the sector that is most difficult to tackle, being so dependent on fossil fuel as its primary input. The evidence at least bears the lack of apparent progress out, with only a 1.7% reduction in emissions since 1990 despite quite significant improvements to vehicle fuel efficiency. These have, until recently been offset by traffic growth and by upsizing of the vehicle fleet. But has the Act galvanized new sorts of action and thinking in the transport sector?

To answer this we need to look at what the Act actually means. When it was first introduced, the then Labour government set about establishing departmental budgets as well as a series of interim overall carbon reduction targets. The Conservative-Liberal  coalition has dropped sectoral targets and instead gone for a ‘Carbon Plan’ which provides indicative assessments of the impacts of a series of proposed policy tools. Of course, when set badly, targets have the potential to corrupt policy making, forcing actions to chase the end goal whatever the cost. That is not good policy. However, targets also provide a strategic focus which draw organizations together to meet common goals. Does it matter that the Department for Transport does not have a target for CO2 reduction?

This question has been explored through interviews with 59 governmental and non-governmental stakeholders in four city regions in England and Scotland joint with colleagues at the Universities of Sheffield, Glasgow and Lund. There seems to be little coherent or comprehensive action towards carbon reduction at a local level and, whilst the 80% by 2050 target is clearly known, there is a lack of clarity about what is expected locally. Even where local carbon targets are set they are deemed to be more a statement of hope than true intent.

Have local authorities failed then in their mission to support carbon reduction? This is complex. In part, they are muddling through on the back of limited evidence and significant uncertainty. For example, if there are major technological breakthroughs in decarbonising the car fleet then their role in reducing vehicle miles is diminished. No-one knows what will happen or how fast. Nonetheless, it seems that the imperative of economic growth has demoted discussion of travel demand reduction policies relative to that of promoting travel demand growth, albeit with some emphasis on public transport.

Our research found little difference in the ambition or effectiveness of carbon reduction policies across the different case study areas or countries. Although the Climate Change Act promises legally binding targets, it seems that it has done little to really stimulate a step change in thinking in the transport sector. Carbon certainly is not yet acting as a constraint in any meaningful way and it appears to have lost traction as an agenda since the downturn.

We will be meeting regional and national stakeholders in the coming months to develop policy recommendations and we would be happy to hear from any interested parties. Events will be held in:

  • Leeds (29th November)
  • Manchester (28th February)
  • London (5th March)
  • Glasgow or Edinburgh (9th April)

If you want to find out more or get involved please contact me


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: