Is it time to end road building?

Oh what a lovely urban motorway. Image: Getty.

The new Office of National Statistics report on carbon emissions and road transport should be a wake-up call. Despite the pressing need to cut emissions, greenhouse gases from road transport have increased by 6 per cent since 1990.

For decades the main solution to the UK’s congested roads has been to build more. The UK government spends over £10bn on our roads every year, or about 1.2 per cent of all government spending. By any standard that’s a lot of money. And while it has long been obvious that the environmental impact is unsustainable, recent research has weakened the case for road building.

So why are we still building new roads and is it time to stop?

What’s the benefit of more road building?

Building roads is supposed to cut congestion and speed up journeys.

But a review by Highways England published earlier this year found that, overall, dozens of roads were more congested as a result of road building. A 2017 analysis by Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) of 25 road building projects found only five had evidence of any impact.

In the long-term, new road space encourages more journeys by car until the extra capacity is clogged up once again. In fact, the same CPRE review found that road building commonly created congestion on nearby roads, leading to calls for even more road building. 

UK roads have a massive carbon impact

Around 30 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions come from vehicles on our roads, including 18 per cent just from cars. Road transport emissions have increased in the last 20-years despite improvements in technology – largely because people are driving more.

The mooted cut to fuel duty would only encourage even more car use at a time when we need as many journeys as possible to be made on foot, bike or by public transport.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have until 2030 to halt climate change. Electric vehicles will help, but not soon enough. The UK government knows this, which is why it has only committed to end the sale of fossil-fuel vehicles a decade later in 2040. The UK Committee on Climate Change has said this will not contribute to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees.


Invest in cycling and walking infrastructure and a zero-carbon future

There will be billions of pounds available if we stop building new roads. Over 10 years, we could fix the £11.6bn backlog of road maintenance and still have about 90 per cent of the bloated road building budget left each year.

The government could use this money to focus on building safe walking and cycling infrastructure for children to travel to school. In our busy towns and cities, tackling the school run and taking those car trips off the road could have a much bigger impact on congestion.

We should be building protected cycle routes on arterial routes to make cycling a safe and convenient transport mode for millions of people to get to work, the shops and most everyday journeys.

Infrastructure for walking and cycling is a fraction of the cost of roads, but it’s what you get back that matters. A Department for Transport report boasts of a £4 return on investment for every £1 spent on certain major road schemes, but the average return on investment for cycling is £13 for every £1 spent.

We should also put more money into clean, affordable public transport. We need greater investment in low-carbon bus fleets and bus priority infrastructure to make bus travel fast, convenient and green. Continuing the electrification of the railways would also permit faster journeys with lower carbon emissions.

What next?

The severity of the climate emergency means we need system change.

Things might be starting to change in Scotland, where a new National Transport Strategy does away with promoting faster journey times in favour of journey reliability, and declares that transport must contribute to delivering net-zero carbon emissions. The logical conclusion is that building more roads is incompatible.

Separately, an independent review of air quality policy commissioned by the Scottish Government has concluded that national road investment should end in five years and spending on walking and cycling should double to around £30 per head.

The mantra of road building is being challenged by the evidence. It’s time politicians recognised that new roads come at a cost we can no longer afford.

Alex Quayle is senior policy officer at Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.