Rather than more preaching from politicians or commentators on climate change, we must listen
Climate Assembly UK gives us the opportunity to test how far the public will go in behaviour change. Without listening, we will never arrive at our green destination, say the former and newly elected chairs of the Transport Select Committee, Lilian Greenwood MP and Huw Merriman MP.
The UK has made great progress in decarbonising, with nearly all sectors of the economy reducing their carbon footprints between 2012 and 2017.
However, as the Committee on Climate Change has repeatedly shown in its annual reports to Parliament, surface transport is the one sector that has been stubbornly going in the wrong direction.
Between 2014 and 2016, surface transport was the only sector to increase its carbon output. It now produces more emissions than any other, accounting for around a quarter of Britain’s greenhouse gas output.
Rather than more preaching from politicians or commentators, we must listen. Purchasing cleaner vehicles; rethinking lifelong transport habits; reclaiming streets for walking and cycling – all of these require us to bring people with us.
That’s why we were delighted that in 2019 the Transport Select Committee (of which we were both members in the last Parliament) was one of six Commons Select Committees to commission the national Citizens’ Assembly on climate change, now Climate Assembly UK.
Public pressure works. Keeping these issues in view works. The United Nations climate summit in November is driving progress. Ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, the Prime Minister has brought forward the last date to buy a new petrol, diesel or hybrid car to 2035.
This weekend, February 7-9, the Assembly meets for the second of four planned weekends. The 110 members are representative of UK society, invited at random from all walks of life and shades of opinion, from all parts of the country.
The Assembly will hear balanced evidence on the choices the UK faces, discuss them and make recommendations about what the UK should do to become net zero by 2050. They’re considering what we buy, how we source our food, how we generate energy and, crucially, how we travel.
The Assembly’s conclusions will influence the work of the Transport Select Committee. We will lead the way in scrutinising whether the Government’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions are in line with its legally binding carbon targets.
Careful consideration is needed when looking at the changes necessary to decarbonise UK transport. Investment in technologies such as electric vehicles will be important, as will our own decisions as responsible citizens about how we travel. Modal shift means using the train instead of flying; walking, cycling or taking greener buses instead of the car. Much of this will be driven by where and how we live.
Change can only happen if sustainable alternatives exist and are both accessible and affordable. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. The UK must go forward with a range of solutions for real life – visiting friends and family or going to work – that bring the nation’s transport emissions down to net zero over the next 25 years. This is only possible if politicians understand people’s priorities. This is what Climate Assembly UK will lay out.
How will the Government embrace the opportunities which come from its push for net zero? Consider ‘vehicle-to-grid’, which will allow electric car owners to put their power back into the National Grid during the 95% of time when cars are parked. Car batteries can become part of our national energy storage resource; keeping the lights on at lower costs.
Exciting potential exists in the transport sphere for the green ‘industrial revolution’, an idea embraced by both our parties. In Birmingham, where the Assembly is meeting, the University has been working with the rail industry to develop the UK’s first hydrogen-powered train. There’s no question that we need to electrify far more of the UK rail network but innovations like this are vital if we’re to meet the Government’s promise to eliminate all diesel only trains by 2040.
On Southern Rail, battery powered trains which recharge along parts of the route which are electric, are scheduled to replace all diesel trains once the Government gives the go-ahead to remove one service for the testing period. If the Government backs these kinds of initiatives, we really could embark on a new green Industrial Revolution for transport.
Transport decarbonisation must begin on a timescale of months, not years. This November, the UK will host the United Nations climate summit – COP26 – for the first time. Our winning bid was based on our record of the leading G20 nations on tackling climate change. It will be a huge embarrassment if we have not embarked on a solution to our surface transport emissions by the time world leaders convene for the summit. Implementing transport policies that put us on track to meet our net zero target should act as a recruiting sergeant to other nations.
We are MPs from different sides of the House, united in our desire to see the UK reduce its transport emissions to net zero. Scientists have spoken of the importance of delivering net zero and our engineers and innovators in the transport sector stand ready to deliver the technology needed. Public opinion demonstrates the appetite for meeting our climate change goals. Climate Assembly UK gives us the opportunity to test how far the public will go in behaviour change. Without listening, we will never arrive at our green destination.
Lilian Greenwood MP is Labour MP for Nottingham South and former Chair of the Transport Select Committee. Huw Merriman MP is Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle. He is the newly elected Chair of the Transport Select Committee.