Sept 2006 - Help the environment - don't go out!

01 June 2013

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee report last month generated the usual amount of comment and knee-jerk reaction. Sadly, virtually none of the proposals asked ‘How do we improve transport?’ Instead it was all about, ‘How do we cut it down?’ The solution to improving the environment seems to be the utterly impractical one of persuading everyone to stay at home. 

We all agree there is a problem. Transport is the only sector of the UK economy where carbon emissions have continued to rise consistently since 1990. But how do you confront this challenge?

Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander suggested that the country needed to impose toll roads across the UK. Proposals were floated in Whitehall that motorists should fit black boxes to their cars and face charges for each mile travelled under a 'pay-as-you-drive' policy. Satellite links would enable computers to spy on all road journeys and send drivers itemised bills.

The Environmental Committee proposed that the 70mph speed limit should be slashed or rigidly enforced and higher tariffs be introduced for the most polluting cars - up to £1,800 - to reduce greenhouse gases. Road usage, it suggests, could also be cut by returning to a fuel tax escalator idea which sparked off the 2000 fuel protests. It would also like to see air travel discouraged with a pollution tax and proposes taxing flights rather than passengers - which could mean a reversion to the situation where air travel becomes the preserve of the rich.

In short, the whole exercise is aimed at stopping people travelling - which is clearly a backward - and impractical - step.

The proper way to look at the problem is to ask, 'How can we keep people travelling with the minimum harm to the environment?' You can't say - which seems to be the message - that we save the planet by not travelling.

This has been one of the great advances of civilisation over the last couple of centuries. If you want to cut road and air transport, you need to provide an alternative: and the logical and available one is rail.

Do politicians think that commuters enjoy sitting on blocked roads for hours every morning? Do they think holidaymakers revel in being herded like cattle around heaving air-ports? Of course they don't - but what options do they have?

Investment in a massive improvement to rail services is the answer - but this would need two fundamental decisions. One - to take rail back into public hands so that the government can actually make these decisions and two - to reopen local and rural lines so that people have a genuine choice.

Until these two steps are taken, the debate about cutting emissions from road and air transport is an empty and pointless waste of breath, print and effort.

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