Transport and the climate emergency

Councils can help reduce transport emissions.

In 2019, the policy debate on carbon reduction changed for good, with the publication of the Committee on Climate Change’s report Net Zero, and rising citizen interest in climate change through the school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests.

Most UK local authorities have now declared climate emergencies. It seems to be accepted, to an unprecedented degree, that to achieve the net zero goals will require action across all sectors and areas of the country.

This is a particular challenge for transport, the largest sector for emissions in the UK economy. Given the scale of the challenge, the LGA has commissioned work from the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, to summarise key policy positions and options for change for its members.

Due to report in late June 2020, the project is asking what could and should local authorities do to move from the declaration of emergencies to taking rapid action. The project will focus on a three-pronged approach, commonly known as ‘Avoid, Shift, Improve’.

‘Avoid’ actions are those that reduce the amount of movement necessary to participate in daily life. The average distance travelled by a UK resident has declined by 9 per cent since 2002, even in the absence of any policies to support this. The reductions are biggest in the wealthiest parts of society. There is scope to accelerate this further through measures such as integrating transport and land use, and providing more services online.

‘Shift’ actions are councils’ bread-and-butter activities, as they seek to encourage more walking, cycling and public transport use. These fulfil multiple policy goals of air quality, congestion reduction and social inclusion, as well as cutting carbon. However, the scale of the carbon challenge means we need to rapidly accelerate bus service provision, not just halt its decline – and authorities with little tradition of cycling in their area will need to change their game quickly.

‘Improve’ actions are about encouraging a shift to less-polluting transportation for every mile driven. Electrification is a key aspect here, with authorities taking the lead on providing the right charge-point infrastructure to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

The project is looking to provide briefing notes that help accelerate the uptake of the most necessary and newest policies where there are significant risks. It will also identify places that have adopted early, to share learning on implementation. There is no ‘one size fits all’ set of solutions and the project will factor this into its analysis.

While the project is heavily focused on what local authorities can do, it will also consider what might be required of central government. Despite the emphasis on EV adoption, for example, recent data shows that 37 sports utility vehicles were sold for every one battery electric vehicle in 2018, with the gap widening rapidly.

Vehicle purchase is an area over which local authorities have little control, but what happens is central to whether they can make progress against their climate emergency commitments.

As attention builds towards COP26 in Glasgow in November, this project will be an important resource that identifies how local government can make good on its ambitions for carbon reduction in transport while improving the health, wellbeing and prosperity of communities.


Professor Marsden is an expert in climate and energy policy in the transport sector. For more information, please visit  The LGA is holding transport workshops on 25 February in London and 12 March in Leeds – email to take part. The LGA’s conference, ‘In charge? Councils’ role in electric vehicle charging’, takes place in London on 24 March, see


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