Cut motor traffic. Live better lives. Tackle climate change

By Simon Pirani

The borough of Greenwich, south east London, plans to cut car traffic by 45% by 2030 – but even that will produce less than half the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that climate scientists say are needed.

The proposal to cut back traffic is a good start to a conversation about transforming urban transport, I argued this week in a response to the council’s draft Transport Strategy. But only a start. (Download the full response here.)

Copenhagen. But coming to south east London soon. Photo by heb@Wikimedia Commons

Better still would be to set carbon budgets – limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted during specific time periods – and use them as a framework for transport and other policies.

Such budgets can concentrate minds on policies to improve people’s lives, while contributing to tackling climate change at the same time. Better, cheaper public transport and support for non-car ways of travelling, e.g. bikes and walking, all help.

Transport is the second-biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Greenwich; heat, electricity and cooking fuel for homes and other buildings is the first. 

In 2019, Greenwich was one of many local authorities that declared a “climate emergency” in response to school pupils’ strikes demanding action on climate, and Extinction Rebellion’s direct action campaign. Even the UK parliament claimed to recognise this emergency.

Greenwich declared that it would aim to be “carbon neutral” by 2030, and at the end of last year issued a Carbon Neutral Plan.

But so far there have been far more words and plans than effective action.

At the start of this year, the council went to desperate lengths to stifle local opposition to the Silvertown Tunnel project – an extra road crossing under the Thames from Greenwich to Newham – which, if it goes ahead, will increase greenhouse gas emissions from transport, as well as exacerbating air pollution problems.

The tunnel has no support locally, so the old council leadership, fearing punishment at the local elections in May, finally reversed its stance in March. They helped push through a decision to ask the Mayor of London, who is in charge of the project, to pause and review it. He said no.

The new council leadership has vowed to do better.

Councillor Averil Lekau, the deputy leader, has put the draft Transport Strategy out for consultation, with a focus on measures to reduce the volume of road traffic, and encourage non-car modes of transport (that is, public transport, cycling and walking).

This could be a positive start.  

Of course greenhouse gas emissions from transport will need to be cut everywhere, not just in Greenwich, and many councils and communities are thinking about this.

So here’s a summary of the points I made to the council, which may have wider relevance:

□ General targets, such as “carbon neutral by 2030”, are not enough. It is far better to use carbon budgets, which measure the level of greenhouse gas emissions, in specific time periods, that are consistent with science-based targets.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has worked out budgets for every local authority in the UK, using a transparent methodology. The Tyndall researchers divided up global targets based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summaries of research, with reference to principles of social equity.

No approach is perfect, but the budgets are a widely-recognised measuring system. They can be used to underpin policy targets for transport, buildings, industry or other sectors. They cut down the room for greenwash.

□ Greenwich council’s own Carbon Neutral Plan rightly states that carbon removal will be “limited and expensive”, and that carbon offsets are not a sustainable way of cutting emissions. So I suggest it should stop talking about “carbon neutrality” and “net zero” altogether, since these phrases simply open the door for greenwash and blocking effective action on climate change.

□ Road transport in Greenwich now emits around 280,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. The council’s aim to cut car traffic by 45%, as measured by vehicle kilometres travelled by car per year, would – if it was achieved – save around 80,000 of those tonnes, I estimate. A target based on the Tyndall Centre carbon budgets would probably be around 60,000 tonnes at the end of the decade … so there would still be a long way to go.

Even to get that far would require a major change of culture, rethinking the way we live and the way that our cities operate.

□ Greenwich has set a target of a 10% cut in the vehicle-kilometres driven by vans and lorries, by 2030. Why is this target for these vehicles – mostly on company business – so modest, compared to the 45% cut proposed for car traffic?

□ Along with the proposed cut in traffic, Greenwich aims to reduce car ownership. This is no bad thing, if linked to support for public transport and alternative modes. But I suggest that  research be conducted into the problems facing the borough’s lowest-income families, who can not afford cars, and into ways of supporting their needs e.g. with free access to public transport.

□ The draft Transport Strategy fails to point out the obvious fact that, if the Silvertown tunnel is built, it will undermine the key aim of reducing road traffic. More roads produce more traffic, and this one will be no exception.

Greenwich council has called on the Mayor of London to pause the project for review, and – even though work has just started and one of two tunnels will now have to be bored – the review could still be conducted, and proposals made to use the tunnel e.g. for a rail connection or other types of transport.

Stopping this ruinous project from being completed must surely be part of any meaningful transport decarbonisation strategy in Greenwich.

□ The draft Transport Strategy promises that the council will come up with an Electric Vehicles (EV) action plan. But I urge the borough to “adopt an approach that commits its resources to EVs only after the necessary investment in traffic reduction, public transport and alternative modes have been made”.

Central government has, on one hand, cut council resources to the bone, and, on the other, prioritised EVs – instead of more effective decarbonisation measures – in its own transport spending. Why should the cash-strapped council focus on EVs?

“Until EVs are produced with lower emissions on a life-cycle basis, and until EVs affordable to Greenwich residents become widely available, [council] resources should be focused on public transport and alternative modes”, I argue.

□ Nowhere does the gap between words and action on climate yawn wider than at City Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Authority.

In January the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced the aim of making London “zero carbon” by 2030: the policies to achieve it include cutting vehicle-kilometres driven by 27% by 2030. A consultants’ report that reviewed these policies pointed to another more ambitious scenario under which vehicle-kilometres driven would go down by 40%.

As things stand, TfL’s biggest piece of infrastructure investment is the tunnel, i.e. road expansion, while public transport projects such as the extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Thamesmead are again delayed and bus routes are cut.

If the Mayor really intends to cut traffic by more than a quarter, why spend £2 billion plus on a new tunnel?

Greenwich’s draft Transport Strategy refers to the London transport strategy, published in 2018 – but not to the Mayor’s new and even more ambitious targets. If targets are not aligned with each other, and with science-based carbon budgets, they could very easily end up as empty greenwash.

□ The draft Transport Policy states, wrongly, that central government’s transport policies “focus on mitigating the impacts of climate change and air pollution, promoting economic growth and reducing social inequality”. They don’t. It is bizarre that a Labour-controlled council should claim that they do.

Government transport policies have been severely criticised by transport, energy and climate researchers, for ignoring the need to reduce dependence on motor transport, while betting recklessly on vehicle technologies with limited decarbonisation potential.

The government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan, published in July 2021, focused mainly on EVs, and included no specific targets for reducing the overall volume of traffic. The UK’s leading transport policy researchers denounced it: Jillian Anable of the University of Leeds dismissed the focus on EVs as “delusional”, while Christian Brand of the University of Oxford said it was “impeding the race to net zero”.

Download my suggestions to the council, in full, here.

If you live in Greenwich, the council is asking for your views on the transport strategy. The consultation ends on Sunday 25 September.

More from People & Nature

Electric cars are no panacea. The government’s focus on them is a sham (February 2021)

How the UK Climate Change Committee steals from the carbon budget (July 2021)

Silvertown tunnel reinforces deadly climate doublethink (August 2022)

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One Response to Cut motor traffic. Live better lives. Tackle climate change

  1. Nicholas Williams says:

    Yes, I think this response is excellent. My only additional comment, as an outsider, is that discussion of the funding requirement for such a transition is completely missing. Of course, though you need a plan before you know how much to budget, but all too often these very laudable aims fail because the resources just aren’t available. You rightly reference the £27bn available for roads (and of course the outrageous cost of the tunnel) compared to just £2bn for the alternatives but, locally, what resources does the council currently have and how much can it expect from other sources? And, how does this compare to what it needs? Some sort of budget baseline and financial targets are needed to accompany the plan to provide transparency and accountability so that the public can assess a) whether the council is being true to its aspirations i.e. by shifting funds from cars to sustainable transport, and b) whether the other tiers of government are also playing their part.

    A QUICK RESPONSE FROM THE AUTHOR. I agree, funding is a big issue. Local government has been cut cut cut by successive Tory governments. I don’t know what resources Greenwich has for its transport strategy, and certainly the council’s document doesn’t make that clear. Once the basic principles are sorted out (which is what I tried to address here), that will be a problem.

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