Transport and Climate Change Unresolved:
Overview of Conclusions
Although the harmful effect of transport on climate change has been an explicit theme in
national and international transport policy since the late 1980s (and had been
foreshadowed in research by the coal and oil industries and others for a century) , this
knowledge had little influence on transport projects and strategy until much more recently.
By 2020, at the beginning of the Fellowship, there were signs of a real traction of the
developing international scientific consensus, such that climate might be given its true
importance in policy. In the early stages of the work my attention focussed on changes in
the policy context and appraisal processes of the Treasury (especially its ‘Green Book’ on
appraisal), and associated advice from DEFRA, BEIS and the Department for Transport
whose 2021 report ‘Decarbonising Transport’ included not only the electrification of
vehicles, but also reversing car dependence, increasing the role of walking, cycling and
public transport, reducing unnecessary travel by sustainable land-use planning, better
logistics, and telecommunications, and higher vehicle occupancies. It would logically also
involve a move away from the dominance of road infrastructure schemes designed to
provide for and encourage further growth in road traffic, and a move away from appraisal
rules which had evolved to support such schemes. I assessed these changes in official
advice as signs of a real sea-change, implying that developments in understanding transport
sustainability should – and could – genuinely contribute to reversing the direction of change
in transport carbon production. In retrospect, I would now have to say (as others did at the
time) that that assessment was over-optimistic.
Such a sea-change is possible, and necessary, but it is not a certainty. The 2021 concept of
‘Two Futures’, the guiding conceptual framework of the work, implied that a very much less favourable alternative was also possible. Potential levels of climate change could be – we now have to say will be – much more profound than had been allowed for, which would in turn drastically change the likely future trends in transport needs and the conditions in which travel could operate. These two alternative futures will need to be reflected explicitly and accurately in the sort of modelling and forecasting which underpinned the appraisal of transport strategies and projects.
However, in official practice, even when alternative futures were considered and included in DfT scenarios, they have not yet included either of the two most important of all: success in reducing traffic sufficiently to enable transport to contribute to reducing carbon swiftly; or failure, requiring adaptation to the degree of climate change, and its implications for travel and social and economic life. Rather, they continued to use unrealistic assumptions which biased the appraisals of both single projects and the combined effects of sustainable and unsustainable strategies.
By the second year of the Fellowship, the economic and political context within which
alternatives could be defined and appraised had changed hugely, unexpectedly, and unfavourably. The environmental crisis intensified, but its expression, a continuing series of weather crises of flooding, drought and heat, had to fight for attention against other headlines: the Covid Crisis, the Economic Crisis, the Brexit Crisis, the Energy Crisis and the Cost of Living Crisis, all developing alongside an unprecedented intensity of a crisis of governance. At the time of writing, this is marked by a breakdown of many long-established expectations of how the British political system should work, and a lack of clarity in its direction and priorities. Assumptions about the future economic and social influences on travel demands and needs, continue to rely on a completely implausible form of ‘Business as Usual’. Such movement as there had been in implemented policy, was eroded.
At the same time it has become apparent that the methodologies, techniques and
assumptions of analysis used in transport appraisal are not neutral in their effect, but are
powerful influences for, or against, the development of sustainable policies.
The combination of these factors has given space for a ‘push-back’ at local, regional and
national levels against the principles, methods and assumptions of sustainable transport.
This is reflected in a shift of emphasis in my later work on the Fellowship as compared with
the earlier ones. My proposition at present is that the better initial developments have been
challenged by a restoration of some of the worst features of ‘predict-and-provide’ in roads
policy particularly, with more and more explicit breach of the best principles of appraisal,
and a de facto reallocation of road capacity towards car use rather than away from it,
accelerated by unsustainable increases in vehicle size, collapse of policies on pavement
parking, budget reductions for spending on active travel, and financial restrictions on public
Thus the papers and reports I summarise here are not a single line of argument with a single
assessment of the state of play. Rather, they are in part a record of changing assessment, in
real time, of the pressures and developments in transport policy. The climate crisis is deeply
The Committee on Climate Change has recognised this in its most recent report to
Parliament, in June 2023, sobering reading for its critical assessment of the shortfall in
delivering necessary policy and technical change, reporting in a month of unprecedented
global environmental damage. In particular, it advised that the UK transport sector was
failing to deliver essential demand reductions in the volume of ground and air traffic. It
called for a fundamental review of present and future road schemes, similar to that carried
out by the Welsh Government, to avoid locking-in unsustainable patterns of behaviour. (The
Welsh Model would suggest an independent and authoritative inquiry designed to work to
transformative policies which would require recovery of momentum and commitment).
The CCC approach is, essentially, the same conclusion as the work reported here. There is
still an unresolved tension at the heart of transport policy, in its ambivalence on what to do about transport demand. The argument about ‘predict and provide’, so close to a resolution nearly 20 years ago, finds new forms of resisting tides. I hope this work will assist the
essential task of finding the right balance of Gramsci’s ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.
Carbon, the roads programme, and ‘de minimis’ in law
Phil Goodwin, Local Transport Today, 01 April 2021
Taking Grant Shapps’ walking and cycling targets seriously
Phil Goodwin, Local Transport Today, 19 February 2021
New Green Book paves way for shake up of road and transport appraisals
Phil Goodwin, Local Transport Today, 16 December 2020
Social media, disappearing traffic, and social justice
Phil Goodwin, Local Transport Today, 2 October 2020
Road appraisal makes carbon dioxide uniquely insignificant. Why? And what to do about it?
Phil Goodwin, Local Transport Today, 07 August 2020
Transport appraisal and planning in a time of imperatives
Phil Goodwin, Local Transport Today, 15 May 2020
Net Zero requires reappraisal of the road programme: but how?
Phil Goodwin, Local Transport Today, 03 April 2020
Visitors at the museum: glimpses of life during (and after) the car
Local Transport Today, Phil Goodwin, 21 February 2020
Road user charging again? New principles for an old issue
Phil Goodwin, Local Transport Today, 10 January 2020
Transport: The New Realism
Goodwin, P, Hallett S, Kenny F, Stokes G (1991), Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford
Transformation of transport policy in Great Britain
Goodwin P (1999), Transportation Research A 33 (1999) 655-699
Smarter choices: changing the way we travel
Cairns S, Sloman L, Newson C, Anable J, Kirkbride A, Goodwin P (2004), Department for Transport
Traffic impact of highway capacity reductions
Cairns, S, Hass-Klau, C and Goodwin, P (1998), Traffic impact of highway capacity reductions. Landor Publications
Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic
SACTRA (1994), Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment Department of Transport, HMSO London
Peak Travel, Peak Car and the Future of Mobility: Evidence, Unresolved Issues, Policy Implications, and a Research Agenda
Goodwin P (2012), ITF/OECD Paris
Young People’s Travel – What’s Changed and Why? Review and Analysis
Chatterjee, K., Goodwin, P., Schwanen, T., Clark, B., Jain, J., Melia, S., Middleton, J., Plyushteva, A., Ricci, M., Santos, G. and Stokes, G. (2018). Department for Transport
The main trends in car use, travel demand and policy thinking
Goodwin P (2019), Round Table on Zero Car Growth, OECD/Paris
Recent blog posts
FIT hosted its first ever webinar last Wednesday, 27 April, on the topic of Transport Appraisal & Carbon.
Discussion Paper for International Transport Forum discusses the main trends of car use and travel demand.