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Accelerating decarbonisation of the transport sector: Labour at the 2019 General Election

Words by:
Director
November 18, 2019

May 2006 seems an awful long time ago. Pluto was still a planet, Twitter was two months old and Jeremy Corbyn was still a backbencher. It was also the month Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth planted the issue of climate change firmly into the minds of millions around the world as potentially THE single biggest crisis facing mankind.

Thirteen years later, it has finally entered the minds of politicians as they race to see who can achieve “net-zero” – with the pace of change a key battleground. How they plan on doing this and if what they have set out will work, is up for debate.

It is not just individual policy announcements which are indicative of the new approach. The last few months have seen a fundamental shift in the narrative of policymaking which is informing Labour’s transport plans. Though previous campaigns have included bold pledges on the environment, 2019 has seen Labour weave the fight against climate change into every facet of its policymaking and budgeting. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in transport.

However, the question remains (beyond Labour’s chances of being able to implement these policies) whether industry will allow a radical push towards zero carbon in such a short period of time. While many within the Labour Party are convinced of the immediacy of the problem, they may well find the intransigence of the sector represents an insurmountable barrier. With so many competing policy programmes, industry will need to play a leading role – and Labour will need to manage these relationships carefully.

At Labour conference members voted to commit to net zero carbon by 2030 if it wins the election (though not officially endorsed by the leadership) – 20 years before the government’s ambition. Key to realising this ambition for Labour is the decarbonisation of the transport sector. With meeting its own carbon targets being such a mammoth task, do Labour’s transport decarbonisation plans go far enough?

Transport is the single biggest contributor to the UK’s climate impact, overtaking energy supplies in 2018 by contributing 26 per cent of emissions. The primary source of this pollution is petrol and diesel cars, an area Labour is focusing on to achieve net zero. Already this year, Labour has pledged £3.6 billion to expand the UK’s electric vehicle charging networks, interest free loans to help purchase electric vehicles, and support for community car-sharing based on electric vehicles. Such ambitious investment in ultra-low emission vehicles would mark a significant departure from the piecemeal efforts of previous governments.

However, it is not as simple as decreeing there will now be a first class EV infrastructure. There are a number of barriers Labour will be forced to contend with, from managing electrical supply and interoperability to ensuring consumer demand and combating range anxiety. That is to say, bold promises in opposition are likely to run into the same problems preventing current governments from increasing the uptake of EVs.

Labour’s transport decarbonisation plans don’t end on the road. The railway network is also a big focus. In adopting the ‘Green New Deal’ at conference, Labour committed to backing ambitious rail electrification, and measures to increase sustainably powered rail freight. Once again though there are problems, not least of which is the huge cost associated with electrification. Push back from the industry, especially at a time of potential nationalisation, will also complicate matters.

Labour hasn’t made an announcement on aviation – yet. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has floated the possibility of cancelling Heathrow expansion, citing the increased carbon emissions – convenient for an MP whose constituency includes the airport. Policies to curb private jet use have also been mooted, and there is the potential to include aviation in net zero targets.

Yet, aviation still poses a challenge to Labour; while increasing taxes on aviation will please the green lobby, it will likely result in higher air fares – pricing out those lower down the socioeconomic scale whom the Party proposes to help. Balancing environmental commitments with social justice is a major challenge facing Labour.

But are Labour’s plans for transport exactly the shift required to avert imminent climate disaster, or a programme too radical to the very sector whose support it needs? And how do these plans help or hinder Labour’s other policy priorities?

To answer these questions, and many more, WA is hosting a roundtable on Labour’s transport agenda at the 2019 general election, featuring Alan Simpson (Adviser on Sustainable Economics to Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP) and Dr Richard Carmichael (author of the Committee for Climate Change’s recent report: Behaviour change, public engagement and Net Zero). Limited places are still available, so if you are interested please RSVP to Nathalie Dixon-Young at nathaliedixon-young@wacomms.co.uk.

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