The Low-Carbon Transition Plan, drawn up by the previous Government, defines how different sectors of the economy are expected to reduce their carbon emissions by 2020. It relies very heavily on de-carbonizing electricity generation and reducing domestic emissions through home insulation programmes.
These two programmes are necessary because those two sectors accound for a lot of carbon. What's a little surprising though is how little the Plan has to say about transport. What de-carbonizing of transport is planned by 2020 depends mainly on the EU's upcoming 95g CO2/km average emissions standard for cars, and a similar standard for vans. There's no real strategy to reduce the amount of travel by car. There is a plan to "source 10% of the UK's transport energy from renewable sources...primarily...sustainably-produced biofuels."
This plan is clearly the path of least political resistance. It centres on the easy targets where there is the least
amount of convincing of the electorate to do. However, it is also a lazy plan, and a plan that is dangerous for the economy. It is lazy because it puts off decarbonizing of transport, which must happen if the UK is to reach its longer-term post 2020 targets. It fails to start the hard work of convincing the electorate that car dependency is not in our long-term best interests. The plan is dangerous because it leaves Britain in an insecure position in terms of oil supplies. It does next to nothing to tackle oil-dependency in transport. The Low-Carbon Transition Plan is in danger of leaving the UK very vulnerable to fluctuations in the oil price. The oil price is already higher than the government was predicting it would be by this time, and there are real downside risks if the oil price becomes volatile. Some observers say that 'peak oil' is already with us, and the oil price could rise substantially as early as 2015. Yet when 2020 comes, we will barely have started to tackle the problem of oil-dependency in transport.
Private cars are in physical terms one of the easiest ways to reduce carbon emissions, because the average private car is very inefficient, and more efficient cars are already on the market. All the Government needs to do is make the tax regime more favourable to lower-emission cars. Right now, in the UK lower-emission cars are at a premium compared to similar models. For example, consider the Ford Focus range:
Focus 1.6 Petrol (Zetec) 159g/km £15845
Focus Econetic 104g/km £16895
Focus Econetic Start/Stop 99g/km £17345
You can see that the highest-emitting model is considerably cheaper in terms of list price, which gives a perverse incentive which is not compensated for by the higher VED.
As well as addressing vehicle emissions, the Government could also do things to tackle car dependency.
It wouldn't be hard to tackle motor vehicle dependency in the public sector. Currently, there's no real effort expended on examining whether journeys by local authority, police, NHS and other public-sector staff are actually necessary or if they could be achieved by public transport or by cycle. There's evidence that police on cycles can be more effective than officers in cars. Local authority staff in London by definition make journeys within a distance that is easily cyclable. All this should save the taxpayer money as well as reducing our national carbon footprint. There's just as much scope in the private sector for improvement, if only the Government would give the right signals and incentives. If they did, UK businesses could reduce their costs and be in better shape for the era of more expensive energy.
Then of course there is the vexed question of the private car. Can the Government do anything about private car use? I'll address that in a separate post.