ULEZ and Net Zero: learning lessons

ULEZ and Net Zero: learning lessons

04 Aug 2023 Posted By Joe Scotting

By RHA Policy Lead for the Environment and Vehicles Chris Ashley

The Uxbridge by-election result put a cat-amongst-the-pigeons on environmental issues. With the trigger being the proposed extension of TfL’s Ultra-low Emission Zone across the whole of Greater London, the subsequent backlash has prompted a review of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and wider cross-party calls for “reflection”, “flexibility” and “pragmatism and proportionality”.

The RHA strongly welcomes this change of tone and the recognition amongst politicians that the public must be brought along the journey to reduce emissions.

Housing and transport is where Net Zero morphs from the abstract into reality for the public. As with housing, transport affects everyone. The fundamental ability to travel from A to B applies to both passengers and goods so that we can function as a society and economy. Importantly, the choice of whether to travel normally sits with the individual not with the State.

Reducing emissions from transport therefore affects everyone, and how we achieve this viably within the commercial vehicle sector will focus the work of the newly-convened RHA “Net Zero Forum”. Consisting of a cross-representative group of RHA members, its first meeting on 15 August coincides with commentators trying to reconcile how the ULEZ backlash could occur against widespread general public support for the environment.

To drive the healthy debate needed, we welcome the call for “lessons to be learnt” and present 10 such lessons for politicians to digest from the last few weeks.

  • The State can not do this alone. Collaboration is essential if environmental goals are to be realised. Achieving Net Zero is complex, but it can be done well and enjoy the support of all.
  • Understand that “sustainability” recognises that social, environmental and economic well-being are all vital. Focussing on just one to justify a policy will backfire if the other two are ignored.
  • Probe in more detail what public support for the environment actually means and what the public is prepared to accept.
  • Be flexible. Keep the existing diesel phase-out dates in place but allow for exemptions if feasible solutions that cater for the entire United Kingdom can not be found in time.
  • Be pragmatic. Industry needs certainty in order to invest, but don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good if near-zero emission technologies also reduce emissions. Low carbon fuels and hydrogen combustion have a role here.
  • Both the public and industry can do the “heavy lifting” to invest and phase-in clean technologies, but we need a supportive financial and regulatory framework to do this. Imposing punitive charges to incentivise change is folly. It hurts those least able to adapt the most, with low-margin industries like logistics passing those costs on. Instead, we need greater government investment and tax-breaks.
  • Be aware that the State does not have a monopoly on incentivisation. Commercial and public demands to decarbonise are equally powerful incentives to reduce emissions if industry wants to win future business.
  • Recognise that if you choose to implement low emission zones / clean air zones / zero emission zones, their acceptance depends on there being a mature supply of “required vehicles” that all can access. Size of area and choice of compliance standard is therefore crucial when designing such zones.
  • Be honest about costs, how zero emission vehicles perform and the payback period businesses need to realise their return on investment.
  • Provide greater transparency of intent. Are your environmental policies solely focussed on reducing emissions? Or are you advocating other agendas such as less travel? If so, say so – upfront and clearly in your manifesto before an election.

We observe that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods did not feature in the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto; meanwhile, the London Mayor’s manifesto commitment on ULEZ was understood to limit its expansion in October 2021 to the North and South Circular Roads, and not beyond.

Tremendous goodwill exists to improve the environment, but achieving those aims requires the balancing of multiple competing issues via recognised procedures. The RHA does not regard the Uxbridge result as a call to stop Net Zero, rather a shot-across-the-bows that a change of approach is now needed. That approach must be guided by dialogue, debate and consent which we stand ready to support, engage and facilitate.

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