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To achieve the Government’s net-zero target, emissions from the transport sector need to be greatly reduced. The significant reduction in journeys made at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic gave a glimpse of what low-traffic cities could look like. Overall, transport emissions in 2020 fell by 20%, the greatest percentage decrease by sector, with total emissions reduced by 11%. However, this was largely as a result of the economy coming to a virtual halt, highlighting the scale of the challenge to decarbonise the economy. Further, as restrictions have been gradually lifted, travel has recovered to be similar to pre-pandemic levels, but now with people spending more time in their cars.

Decarbonisation of Transport

In 2019, the Government legislated to set a net zero emissions target by 2050. If met, this target would effectively mean that the UK will end its contribution to global emissions by 2050. In 2019, transport was responsible for 27% of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it the largest emitting sector. Cars, vans and HGVs are responsible for nearly 90% of transport emissions, whilst buses and trains only emit 4%. Active transport, which makes up around a quarter of all trips but just under 4% of total distance travelled, offers the potential to reduce all emissions for shorter journeys.

The Government’s ‘Transport Decarbonisation Plan’ published in July 2021 presents an array of overarching policies which aim to support the move to low-carbon transport. These policies include growing zero-emission vehicle use for personal, public and freight transportation as well as increasing the share of active transport amongst others.

The plan is supported by sector specific strategies, legislation, and funding. For example, the Government plan to end the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, with vehicle and infrastructure grants to increase electric vehicle uptake. Meanwhile the bus industry is targeting all buses to be ultra-low or zero-emission by 2025 whilst the rail sector aims to remove all diesel-only powered vehicles from the network by 2040. Further, the Government is developing a 4-year strategy to deliver “bold” plans for active transport.

Covid-19 pandemic

The SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) virus reached the UK in January 2020, and in March 2020 the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown, which prohibited the public from leaving their homes without a reasonable excuse. This, and subsequent lockdowns, have not only served to curb the spread of Covid-19, but also led to a significant reduction in transport use.

Cars were the main mode of transport used during the pandemic, as they were perceived as being more Covid-19 safe than alternatives. Further, the use of public transport was discouraged at the start of the pandemic, exacerbating concerns surrounding bus and rail travel. Preventative measures, such as the use of face coverings, have restored some passenger confidence. The Government also supported the rail industry with some £13 bn of support in the 2020/21 financial year. This support was provided so that rail operators could continue to provide services that became financially unviable during the pandemic. While the use of public transport fell, active transport bucked this trend, with levels increasing during the pandemic due to a desire to improve personal health and fitness, as well as being seen as a safer alternative to public transport.

It remains to be seen whether the behavioural changes due to the pandemic will be long lasting. The initial increase in active transport has not been sustained, with levels similar now to those before the pandemic. Public transport usage meanwhile has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with car usage a more attractive option.

Combined, decarbonisation policies alongside restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19 led to a reduction in GHG emissions from the transport sector of 20% in 2020. This in turn contributed to an 11% reduction in the total annual UK GHG emissions. However, this was accompanied by significant reductions in economic activity. The Government has plans for a “green recovery”, as laid out in the 10 Point Plan for a Green Recovery and Transport Decarbonisation Plan; the impact of these on achieving shorter term recovery-based goals alongside longer term net zero targets will only be understood with time.


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