Transport – A climate emergency budget?

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This blog looks at the transport elements of the Scottish Government’s Budget for 2020-21, with a focus on how these spending plans support measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This builds on the high level analysis set out in the SPICe budget briefing.

The climate emergency

The First Minister declared a climate emergency during a speech to the SNP annual conference in April 2019, which was accompanied by a commitment to accelerate the reduction in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.  This commitment was enshrined in law during October 2019 – with a new target set for Scotland to produce net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2045.

Reducing transport emissions is possibly the biggest challenge in meeting this commitment.  Scottish transport greenhouse gas emissions have increased annually since 2013.  In 2015, transport became Scotland’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2017, transport accounted for 36.8% of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions – standing at 0.4% above the level of transport emissions in 1990.  By contrast, total Scottish greenhouse gas emissions fell by 46.8% between 1990 and 2017, as shown in the chart below.202002_SPICe_Budget_transport blog_1990 and 2017

During 2017, road transport accounted for almost 65% of Scottish transport greenhouse gas emissions, as outlined in the chart below.

202002_SPICe_Budget_transport blog_Transport type

Transport policy and the climate emergency

Taking climate action was one of four priorities set out in the new version of the National Transport Strategy (NTS), published on 5 February 2020.  While not identifying any specific actions or projects aimed at reducing transport emissions, due to be set out in a forthcoming NTS delivery plan, the NTS committed the Scottish Government to creating a transport system where:

People will be able to make travel choices that minimise the long-term impacts on our climate and the wellbeing of future generations.

A more concrete policy approach to the delivery of a net-zero carbon transport system was set out in the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland’s Key Findings Report, published on 20 January 2020, which is to be followed by a report into how such policies could be delivered.  This stated that:

Policies must promote not only the use of zero emission transport, but also new opportunities for shared mobility and on-demand services, a much greater role for public transport in the overall provision of mobility, and substantial increases in the proportion of journeys made by the active modes.

It also went on to recommend that investment in road and rail should focus on maintaining existing networks and improving their resilience and reliability, before their expansion.  Where expansion of the road network was deemed necessary, a consequent reduction in capacity for private cars should be made elsewhere.  There should also be a significant reallocation of road space from private vehicles to public transport in towns and cities.

Scottish Government transport budget 2020/21 and the climate emergency

So how does the Budget for 2020-21 align with the Scottish Government’s emissions reduction targets, the policies set out in the new NTS and the recommendations of the Infrastructure Commission’s report?  The budget is accompanied by a carbon assessment, which reports on the emissions impact of the expenditure set out in the budget.  However, this is of limited value in assessing the emissions impact of total transport investment, as it does not include “second round emissions” – such as emissions produced by vehicles using the trunk road network.

During the budget statement, the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy highlighted a number of transport investment figures relevant to transport emissions reduction, stating:

Promoting a greater shift to public transport will be key to our success. We are increasing overall funding for rail and bus services, including concessionary travel, by £286 million – to a total of £1.55 billion in 2020-21.

Investment in active travel will increase to over £85 million, promoting cycling, walking and more sustainable transport.

The £83 million Future Transport Fund will see us investing in low carbon and other transformational initiatives, including low emission and electric buses, bus prioritisation, electric vehicle charging points infrastructure and the Switched on Towns and Cities programme.

We are providing £5 million to help the shift to electric vehicles in the Justice sector and we are increasing to £35 million Low Carbon transport loan fund, supporting those who need support to drive the transition to low emission vehicles.

There are several points to consider when looking at these figures:

  • Of the £286m increase in funding for rail and bus services, £270m (94.4%) is contractual payments to Abellio (ScotRail), Serco (Caledonian Sleeper) and Network Rail. These are ongoing payments to support the day-to-day operation of the rail system, rather than supporting any significant new rail services or routes to be delivered during 2020-21.  The remaining £16m is an increase in funding for the concessionary fares scheme for elderly and disabled people.
  • The funding for active travel increases to £85m from the £80m allocated in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. A real-terms increase of £1.8m (2.25%) since 2018-19.  However, investment in active travel as a proportion of the total transport budget has decreased over the last two years, from 3.34% in 2018-19 to 3.10% in 2019/20 and 2.85% in 2020-21.
  • The Future Transport Fund is an existing budget line, although it does increase by £23m (38.33%) between 2019-20 and 2020-21
  • The Low Carbon Transport Loan Fund supports individuals and businesses to buy new electric vehicles, including cars, vans, motorcycles and e-bikes. Obviously, only those able to afford such vehicles and meet the requirements for a loan, can benefit from this scheme.

More widely, the budget reiterates the commitment made in the 2019-20 budget to invest £500m “over the next few years” in bus priority measures. This could support the reallocation of road space from private vehicles to buses recommended by the Infrastructure Commission.  However, the scope and scale of the measures to be supported by this budget are yet to be announced, meaning it is not currently possible to assess their likely impact.

The budget also highlights plans to develop rail enhancement projects that will produce relatively minor journey time savings on routes between the central belt and Inverness, between Aberdeen and Inverness and on rural rail routes, plus the delivery of the Levenmouth rail link and development work on new stations at Kintore, Dalcross, Reston and East Linton.  These investments may encourage some modal shift from car to rail travel, but will generally be delivered in the years after the current budget.

There are also commitments to support the development of Low Emission Zones, although these are generally aimed at reducing local air pollution rather than greenhouse gas emissions, and the further roll-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

However, future funding for infrastructure to support new rail routes, bus services, electric vehicles, walking and cycling remain dwarfed by the commitment to invest £6bn over the next 10 years in dualling the A9 and A96 trunk roads, alongside other trunk road improvement projects such as the Sheriffhall roundabout flyovers (£120m) or A7 Maybole bypass (£31.5m).  Significant investment in major road projects has been found to generate “induced demand”, and this investment may simply create additional trips by car, as appears to have happened with the Queensferry Crossing.  It also generates significant emissions during construction and locks in higher emission travel choices for years to come.

This significant trunk road investment appears at odds with the Infrastructure Commission’s recommendations that no net additional capacity for private cars be added to the road network and that action needs to be taken to manage demand for road transport.  It is also difficult to see how it is compatible with the climate commitments in the new NTS.

In addition, there is no real increase in funds for the maintenance of the existing trunk road network, more money to support the provision of bus services or significant additional investment in new high quality walking or cycling infrastructure – all of which would be required to deliver the recommendations of the Infrastructure Commission and the priorities set out in the NTS.

In effect this budget continues the long-term transport investment trends identified in the SPICe 20th anniversary blog on transport.

Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher, Transport and Planning