UK emissions strategy on 'road to nowhere'

As our cities choke on unconscionable levels of pollution, the government’s Road to Zero emissions strategy has proven itself to be a load of hot air. Caroline Russell, Green London Assembly Member, goes beyond this unambitious strategy to propose a revolution in public transport that would pave a road towards a low-emissions society.

Caroline Russell

The government’s new Road to Zero strategy published last Monday (9 July) is yet another guarantee that we will continue to choke on toxic air for decades.

The target of phasing out new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 has been weakened further to an ambition (not target) for at least half of new cars to be ultra low emission by 2030. This is less than the minimum 60 per cent of all sales of new cars and vans to be electric by 2030 that the Committee on Climate Change has recommended.

The Road to Zero strategy is at best a blind alley leading us towards more of what we have now. The strategy announces no changes that will truly tackle the crisis of air pollution – a crisis harming the health of millions of us.

Many countries have committed to ban petrol and diesel cars from 2030 or earlier, but the UK continues to kowtow to the motor lobby – which has no regard for the health of the 40,000 people every year in the UK for whom dirty air contributes to premature death.

Road transport is the single largest source of greenhouse gases, and emissions from transport continue to rise. The road to reaching zero emissions is not through continuing to use fossil fuel or electric cars, it’s through enabling and providing for ways of travelling that create no emissions, or that are very space efficient – such as buses, which can transport 60 people at one time whilst only occupying a fraction of the space that would be needed to transport as many people in cars. Yes, that means walking, cycling and using public transport.

Electric vehicles may be cleaner than fossil-fuelled cars but they still add to congestion and create particle pollution from tyre wear. Their charging infrastructure can be bulky and is making pavements more cluttered and less easy to navigate for mobility-impaired people. This is why it is important to design our future transport beyond private car use, providing access to affordable and convenient public transport in rural areas, as well as in our towns and cities.

Currently, most people are not given a fair option to use decent and convenient public transport, or walk and cycle in safe, unpolluted conditions. If we are to really tackle carbon emissions and clean up our air, then everyone from age 8 to 88 should feel confident enough to ride a bike or walk to the shops in safety wherever they live.

This means investing in public transport and creating healthy neighbourhoods where walking and cycling are safe and convenient, rather than business as usual building more roads, providing more parking and making more congestion and pollution inevitable.

And this is possible for business and tradespeople as well. There are increasing numbers of tradespeople using cargo bikes in London as they are realising that they don’t need a whole van for many of their jobs. Councils could provide fleets of electric-assisted cargo bikes and electric vans for shared use by local businesses. Increasingly, tradespeople turn up by public transport rather than driving.   

These are really positive changes to focus on, bringing people together to meet their neighbours as they cycle down the street, encouraging them to redesign and reclaim their neighbourhoods, allowing them to feel more healthy in their everyday lives and, on top of this, contribute to tackling climate breakdown in a way that makes sense to their everyday lives.

Government must come out from behind their smokescreen of polluted air and barely significant measures, and enable people to walk, cycle or catch the bus down the Road to Zero.