Climate priorities are crucial in post-Covid UK

Sustainable infrastructure and measures that reduce urban pollution will support the UK’s recovery from the impending economic shock post-Covid, says Helen Fry.

Two urgent impulses are now at the fore, in the UK and globally – the desire to kickstart an economy that will soon be in dire straits and the need to decarbonise rapidly to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown. These should not be perceived as conflicting objectives. In the UK, a serious engagement with the urgency of our climate commitments has the potential to accelerate sustainable growth and create jobs as we emerge from the current crisis.

In particular, a renewed focus on the creation of sustainable transport infrastructure is needed at both a local and national level. Transport is the next frontier in the UK’s decarbonisation agenda; 28% of UK domestic emissions emanated from the sector in 2018, of which car use was responsible for more than half. Some of the government’s best laid plans on this front, as set out in its recently published transport decarbonisation plan (TDP), will, however, be implemented in a world which looks very different.

The TDP focuses (albeit arguably not enough) on shifting the planning and development paradigm away from car use, a task which the pandemic may make even harder. As restrictions are eased and public transport is discouraged, the roads are filling up. Car use dropped to around a third of normal levels at the start of lockdown, but by 1 June it was back up to 65%; meanwhile National Rail use is still languishing at 6%, London Underground at 10%, and bus journeys nationwide at 17%. 

The government may struggle to prevent that shift from becoming entrenched - particularly as it presses on with ambitious highway construction and renewal schemes, such as the £1bn A66 cross-Pennine upgrade, which Grant Shapps announced in May. Whilst highway developments are often the quickest fix for congested roads, longer-term solutions – in particular ambitious rail schemes and the creation of better modal interchanges between bus and rail – will be essential.

In cities where commuting by bike is a viable option, however, the shift away from buses and light rail has been a largely beneficial one. Manchester has seen a 22% increase in bike use since lockdown began and in Glasgow 74%. This is a change which the government – which has recently started grappling, somewhat reluctantly, with its responsibilities under the Air Quality Directive - will want to see normalised. 

The past few years have seen Clean Air Zones (CAZ) proposed in areas of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exceedance across the country. These would adopt a similar approach to the zone in London, which saw a 35% drop in NO2 emissions between 2017 and 2019 - 44% within the central ultra-low emission zone. By mid-April, lockdown had seen NO2 fall by a further 27% across the city. 

Without systemic changes, however, the gains will be temporary. Sadiq Khan has already announced that swathes of the capital will be closed to cars as lockdown is eased and introduced a ramped-up congestion charge. In Manchester 150 miles of protected cycle tracks are springing up. Some of these changes would have been unthinkable three months ago, but it might not take long for them to become the new normal. Across the UK, local authorities (including those whose CAZ plans have been put on hold) may find it easier to sell relatively drastic changes to citizens who have already been forced into a radical reimagining of how they live in cities. 

With the right infrastructure in place, local authorities could lock in for the long-term some of the behavioural changes which the virus has catalysed. It is to be hoped that the government – which was elected on a manifesto which promised, amongst other things, to double cycling by 2025 – invests swiftly enough to keep pace with the change. 

Helen Fry is an associate in planning and environmental disputes at BDB Pitmans.