Research from our fellows

December 8, 2020

Are councils’ plans for local road schemes compatible with the declaration of a climate emergency?

Professor John Whitelegg was appointed FIT Senior Fellow in 2020.

Road safety

More than 100 local road schemes are currently being promoted and, in most cases, part-funded by local authorities. These are included in a Department for Transport (DfT) list of Major Road Network and Large Local Majors schemes, provided in a response to a Freedom of Information request.

Download the full list

Many of these councils promoting road building have also declared a climate emergency and are committed to reducing carbon emissions from all sources in policy documents and public statements.

The 310 councils that have declared a climate emergency are listed by UK Climate Emergency Network here.

Of these, 18 councils have allocated more than £20 million each from their own resources to build new roads. This is additional to DfT funding. They are Shropshire, Warrington, Coventry, Plymouth, Liverpool, Leicestershire County Council, Norfolk, Kent, York, Hampshire, Stoke-on-Trent, Devon, Wiltshire, Lincolnshire, Lancashire, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Essex and Wokingham.

The declaration of a climate emergency and the commitment to reduce CO2 emissions do not sit comfortably alongside major infrastructure projects and substantial amounts of funding directed at increasing carbon emissions.

New road building adds substantial amounts of additional carbon to the emissions inventory of the local authority area in which the road is located and at a time when transport’s carbon emissions are large e.g. 37% of all CO2 emissions in Shropshire. Councils like Shropshire Council reject non-road building solutions and support road building.

It is clear that we cannot reach Paris agreement targets or net zero by 2030 targets if we pursue road building in preference to interventions that reduce carbon.

Methodology needed

The additional carbon associated with road building is currently not assessed by a robust, independent methodology that has passed the normal scientific test of peer-review.

The absence of an agreed, thoroughly independent and robust methodology for calculating the impact of new road building on CO2 emissions is a major policy failure that damages our ability to decarbonise transport. It supports infrastructure projects that increase carbon at a time when we should be doing much more to reduce transport carbon.

The additional carbon from road building comes from at least two sources:

  1. carbon generated by the whole life cycle of materials and construction e.g. cement and steel
  2. carbon generated  by the additional traffic that is a consequence of new road building and referred to as  ”induced” traffic.

Professors Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Institute, Manchester University and John Whitelegg, Foundation for Integrated Transport’s Fellow in Transport and Climate Change, presented evidence on embodied carbon at the Public Inquiry into the M4 relief road in South Wales, demonstrating that there is no scientific problem in estimating these emissions.  They are ignored in English road schemes.

There is a large body of scientific, independent research on embodied carbon in Germany and John Whitelegg is in touch with the researchers and will present the results in a future blog.

Professor Phil Goodwin, Foundation for Integrated Transport Fellow in Transport and Climate Change has published extensively on induced traffic which will add to carbon emissions.

An important contribution to this discussion has also been made by Lynn Sloman, Lisa Hopkinson and colleagues in The carbon impact of the national roads programme:

This paper estimates the likely carbon impact of RIS2. To do this, it uses Highways England’s own figures from post-opening project evaluations of strategic road schemes built over the last 18 years, and every publicly-available Environmental Statement for a planned RIS road scheme. A road scheme increases carbon emissions in several ways. There is significant embodied carbon in the steel, concrete, asphalt and other raw materials used to build it. If there is extensive land clearance and many mature trees are felled, a carbon ‘sink’ is lost. Once the road is opened, it may result in higher speeds, and this may lead to more carbon emissions: an increase in average speeds from 60mph to 70mph causes carbon emissions to go up by about 13%. And over time, increased road capacity generates more traffic, as it encourages driving and enables development of cardependent housing estates, retail parks and business parks. This is known as ‘induced’ traffic”

Our estimate of the likely carbon impact of RIS2 takes account of embodied carbon, carbon emissions from higher speeds, and carbon emissions from induced traffic. We estimate that these three factors have roughly equal effect, and that total additional emissions between now and 2032 as a result of RIS2 will be about 20 MtCO2. Emissions 5 could be higher than this if planning policy becomes more permissive, allowing more out of town, car-dependent development. RIS2 will make carbon emissions from the SRN go up, by about 20 MtCO2, during a period when we need to make them go down, by about 167 MtCO2. This increase in CO2 from RIS2 will negate 80% of potential carbon savings from electric vehicles on the SRN between now and 2032”.

This suggests that RIS2 is incompatible with our legal obligation to cut carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, the CCA budgets and the emerging principles for the DfT’s decarbonisation plan. We therefore believe that it should be cancelled.

The carbon impact of the national roads programme, Lynn Sloman and Lisa Hopkinson, July 2020

The 100+ schemes listed in the DfT FOI response are also “incompatible with our legal obligation to cut carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, the CCA budgets and the emerging principles for the DfT’s decarbonisation plan”.

They must be cancelled and local authorities must take the climate emergency much more seriously than they now do. They must abandon road building and switch all transport policy, planning, thinking and funding into zero-carbon, non road-building alternatives. This must be supported by the reallocation of all road building budgets nationally and locally to non-road-building alternatives.

Do a Hereford

Meanwhile all councils could “do a Hereford”. The Herefordshire Council cabinet met on 3rd December 2020 and unanimously decided to stop any further work on the Southern Link Road and Western Bypass. This will need full council ratification in January 2021 but it is a remarkable decision that puts this Council in the forefront of all councils taking transport decarbonisation seriously.

Cabinet also decided to investigate the case for a short river crossing from the industrial estate Enterprise Zone at Rotherwas across the river to Hampton Dene Road and then hugging the eastern edge of the built environment onto the Ledbury Road.

The cabinet member responsible for transport, Councillor John Harrington and his cabinet colleagues, are to be congratulated for recognising the importance of buses, active travel and demand management as well as decarbonisation for the future of transport policy and quality of life in Hereford.



  • Local road schemes being promoted and funded by local authorities: download the FOI request here.
  • The councils that have declared a climate emergency are listed by Climate Emergency UK here.
  • The carbon impact of the national roads programme by Lynn Sloman, Lisa Hopkinson and colleagues, July 2020
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