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Time to get serious about transport’s contribution to climate change

Transport emissions are responsible for more than a fifth of the UK’s contribution to climate change. Ministers have failed to deliver the step change needed to tackle this environmental crisis, despite the coalition agreement pledge “to make the transport sector greener...


Transport emissions are responsible for more than a fifth of the UK’s contribution to climate change. Ministers have failed to deliver the step change needed to tackle this environmental crisis, despite the coalition agreement pledge “to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable”. The truth is that we are running out of time to get serious and place decarbonisation at the heart of transport policy.

By far the largest share of transport emissions comes from vehicles on our roads. A government that was serious about sustainability would be making it easier to make the switch to public transport, cycling and walking. Instead, ministers have let rail fares increase by as much as nine per cent a year and bus fares rise by double the rate of inflation, while overseeing the loss of one in five supported services. Instead of driving people back into their cars, a ‘one nation’ Labour government would be making different choices.

It’s time to stand up to the vested interests in the private rail and bus industries to secure a better deal for farepayers and taxpayers. The train companies made £305m last year, even though they received £51m more in subsidy than they paid back to taxpayers, while the five largest bus companies walked away with over £500m profit from two billion pounds of public funding.

A one nation Labour government would make it easier for local authorities to reregulate local bus services, enabling them to control fares and protect routes. A new power for the transport secretary to designate an area as a bus deregulation exemption zone would ensure bus companies could not frustrate reform. With bus funding devolved, transport authorities would have greater clout to negotiate improvements, like smart ticketing and concessionary fares for 16-19 year olds. A one nation Labour government would ban rail fare rises beyond a strict cap, set tough new rules on peak times and introduce a legal right to the cheapest ticket. The devolution of local rail services to partnerships of transport authorities would enable proper integration of rail and bus services with multi-modal, multi-operator ticketing. Rail industry costs would be tackled by reducing fragmentation, making Network Rail more accountable and keeping Intercity East Coast as a not for private profit comparator to existing franchises.

One nation Labour would be doing more to encourage and promote active travel too. The government axed Cycling England, abandoned the ‘cycling towns and cities’ initiative, ended all funding for speed cameras and have allowed longer HGVs. An alternative approach would see a commitment to using a proportion of the existing roads budget to fund separated cycling infrastructure and safer junctions, tough new requirements for safety equipment on HGVs and the restoration of targets to cut deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Abandoning the reckless plan to increase motorway speed limits would put safety first and prevent a hike in emissions. The case for extending Welsh Labour’s ‘active travel’ legislation to England should be urgently assessed. And by devolving more of transport funding to local authorities, the balance of investment can be shifted to those smaller local schemes that make the most different to supporting public transport, cycling and walking. While a ‘fix it first’ strategy for our broken roads and pavements would benefit cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists.

This renewed focus on public transport, cycling and walking must go hand-in-hand with the decarbonisation of the car fleet. The committee on climate change estimate that we will need 1.7m electric cars by 2020 to meet our carbon budget commitments. Yet ministers have axed support for a national recharging network, even though it is vital to boost consumer confidence in electric and hybrid vehicles. In turn, they need to become more affordable by kick-starting a second hand market through new requirements on the public sector and incentivises for the private sector to green their fleets.

A one nation Labour government would also be making different choices on aviation. The coalition placed its aviation commitments under the section on climate change within their 2010 agreement. Yet ministers have stood aside as the emissions trading scheme has been suspended and have failed to restate the UK emissions reduction target set by Labour in government. A one nation Labour government would not only restate the target, but go further and expand it to include the UK’s share of emissions from international aviation and include them in future carbon budgets. Labour has dropped its presumption in favour of a third runway at Heathrow, made clear a Thames estuary airport is environmentally unsustainable and will insist that any recommendation from the airports commission for additional capacity is deliverable within these tough new targets.

Reducing transport’s contribution to climate change should be at the centre of the Department for Transport’s priorities and policies. After three years of failure, it is increasingly clear that it will fall to a future one nation Labour government to pursue an alternative direction for transport that takes seriously the threat we face from climate change.

Maria Eagle was part of our Fabian Summer conference on Green Labour.

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