Cash for Coronavirus may rightly be hogging the headlines, but I’m interested to know if Rishi Sunak’s first Budget as Chancellor fulfilled his tweet four days ago, saying it will be about “Reaching net zero and ensuring we protect our natural environment”.
In short, it’s not.
Rather, it’s abundantly clear that Sunak was swayed by Tory backbenchers, who lobbied him intensely in the run-up to the budget against reintroducing the fuel duty escalator, presumably worried they’re seen to be attacking motorists. Originally introduced in 1993 to stem the rise of pollution and traffic jams, fuel duty provided 2.2 per cent of national income before Gordon Brown capped it in line with inflation in 2000. Then, in 2011, George Osborne froze fuel duty, denying the exchequer some £9 billion a year that could be spent on carbon emission and air pollution-reducing transport measures.
Now, due to the Chancellor’s decision, it is likely that motorised traffic and pollution will continue to plague our already congested streets. The Greener Journeys’ report of 2018 showed that traffic across the UK has grown by four per cent as a direct result of the fuel duty freeze. These additional vehicles mean that road transport has become the country’s most greenhouse gas-emitting sector, responsible for 23 per cent of total emissions in 2018. Meanwhile, the public health cost of pollution from cars and vans in the UK is £6 billion a year.
Evidently, the Chancellor believes the way to net zero is through electric vehicles. Not only is he investing £900 million in nuclear fusion, space and electric vehicles, but now all pure electric vehicles will pay zero vehicle excise duty (VED). This includes those costing over £40,000, which currently pay £320 a year VED for five years from the second year after registration. Plus, £500 million goes to ‘new rapid charging hubs’ across the country, to make public charging of electric cars away from home easier for owners.
And, if you have cars, you must have roads, according to Chancellor Sunak, so to support all these electric vehicles, there’s £27 billion for roads and motorways and a £2.5-billion pothole fund.
Obviously, he hasn’t read the 2012 report ‘The War on Motoring – Myth or Reality?’, which found that cutting fuel duty tax undermines the shift to more fuel-efficient cars as well as to public transport, walking and cycling. In recent years, public transport usage has decreased while the cost of using it has gone up, impacting both the poorest in our society along with the 24 per cent of people (in England) who don’t own a car.
But, Sunak isn’t ignoring air pollution. Oh no. He’s earmarked £304 million for local authorities to reduce nitrogen dioxide emissions and improve air quality. The failure to mention particulate matter, the main pollutant from electrical vehicles, would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.
Meanwhile, the funding for railway infrastructure is buried within wider ‘boost the north’ plans, and amounts to around £3 billion. It’s hard to get a precise figure as there’s no total spend on rail given in the budget, but it works out at less than ten per cent of the billions being lavished on roads.
Sunak’s ‘big’ announcement on tackling net zero, to go back to his tweet, is to remove the red diesel relief, except for vehicles in the agriculture, fishing and rail from 2022. Vehicles that use red diesel currently only pay 11p per litre in tax, rather than the 58p per litre for regular diesel. This will bring in £15 million to the Treasury, and cut 14 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.
The ‘big’ truth is that, though welcome, ending red diesel relief will do very little to reduce the transport sector’s CO2 emissions, which reached 121.4 million in 2018. In truth, cutting 14 million tonnes is a small reduction of 11 per cent in the overall scheme of what needs to be done to get to net zero by 2030.
This budget was a massive missed opportunity. The Chancellor should be looking at a clean air, health boosting, carbon reducing legacy. But what we have is business as usual which won’t help us reach our 2030 carbon goals and won’t even begin to cut congestion, road danger or air pollution.
Caroline Russell is the Green Party's transport spokesperson and London Assembly Member for Islington.