Stronger commitment to sustainability in transport required

Stronger commitment to sustainability in transport required
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A recent Environmental Committee Audit report has highlighted concerns that sustainability is slipping down the government’s annual reporting agenda and that there is curre ntly inadequate communication to the transport sector on sustainable transport commitments, timetable and progress, making it very difficult for the sector to plan and invest with certainty. 

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Why is sustainability important in the transport sector?

The government has a number of sustainability targets, including the commitment in the Climate Change Act 2008 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

In 2014 a net reduction of 36% in UK greenhouse gas emissions was achieved against 1990 levels. Some 22% of emissions came from the domestic transport sector, which is now the largest emitting sector.

What is the background to the Committee report?

The Committee’s remit includes a responsibility to audit government departments’ and agencies’ performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets. To fulfil this function the National Audit Office (NAO) were asked to review the work of the Department for Transport (DfT) to assess how it has embedded sustainability into its work.

The Committee drew on the NAO’s overview, previous departmental business plans and evidence from DfT officials, the transport sector and local government to examine DfT policies and policy making, governance and operations from a sustainable development perspective.

The NAO concluded that the DfT has taken many positive steps to meeting the challenge of sustainability in the transport sector. The Committee report focuses on those areas where the DfT might go further.

What where the findings and what recommendations have been made?

Recent annual reports were found to have failed to cross-reference departmental progress against important metrics such as Sustainable Development Indicators. The Committee recommended that the DfT communicate to the sector more SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-related—commitments on sustainable transport, through its Single Departmental Plan (SDP) and the forthcoming carbon reduction plan, and ensure that its annual report sets out clearly its progress against those commitments.

Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEVs)
The projected market share for ULEVs of between 3% and 7%, with a mid-point of 5% by 2020 was considered to be too vague leaving the UK playing catch-up with the 9% market share that the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) advises would keep the country on the lowest-cost path to its overall 2050 emissions reduction target.The Committee recommend that the DfT:


  • identify a figure that it intends to work towards up to 2020 so that it can be held accountable for its progress
  • produce a timetable, setting out how and when it intends to incentivise further take-up of ULEVs and what targets its commitments are intended to meet
  • set out a timetable for communicating its fiscal proposals to increase uptake and maintain revenue, including measures relating to company car tax and vehicle excise duty
Rail Industry

The rail industry set itself targets to reduce emissions per passenger kilometre, drawing on industry energy-efficiency best practice. This led to an ambition to reduce carbon emissions per passenger by 37%.

The Committee recommended that:

  • the DfT should communicate its objectives in more detail and work more closely with industry to ensure that, when targets are set, they are well evidenced, well established and robust
  • the updated rail sustainability strategy include new emissions reduction targets, and show how they have been arrived at and how progress against them will be measured.
Decarbonisation target

CCC advice on the lowest-cost pathway to the UK’s 2050 emissions reduction target included an interim 2025 decarbonisation objective, which the transport sector is projected to miss by almost 50%.

A recommendation was made that the DfT set out in the government’s forthcoming carbon reduction plan how it intends to deal with this shortfall in decarbonisation.

The EU’s 2020 renewable energy target, set out in the EU Renewable Energy Directive EU Regulation 2009/28/EC(RED), is for the UK to procure 15% of its overall energy consumption, including 10% of its transport energy consumption, from renewable sources in 2020.Difficulties so far in staying on course to meet the transport sub-target were emphasised. Following Brexit, the sector will look to the government for certainty about the future of these targets.A recommendation was made that the government retain the overall renewable energy target in UK law, incorporate the transport sub-target into it, and set out how it intends to work with other departments to meet targets.

Air Quality
Air quality was highlighted as an example of where the transport sector contributes significantly to air pollution but Defra is the policy lead and other departments have their own stake.The Committee stated that cross-departmental activity should be standard when addressing complex, long-term issues, and that this approach is all the more significant in light of Brexit.

It recommended that:

  • even after the UK leaves the European Union, DfT retain in UK law and continue to work towards the targets set out in the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive EU Regulation 2008/50/EC
  • DfT work with other government departments to ensure that the price of air pollution is accurately reflected in Transport Analysis Guidance
  • air quality is given greater weight in transport appraisal, and devolved or dedicated funding, so that local authorities are able to target their sustainable transport measures on air quality in particular
  • in light of the VW emissions case, the government press the European Research for Mobile Emissions Sources to set out a timescale for concluding whether the existing emissions calculation model is accurate and set out when, following those conclusions, it intends to state whether the UK’s air quality plan will require revision
VW Recall and Potential Legal Action

The Committee noted that VW continues to lag behind the DfT’s preferred timescale for recalling vehicles that contain emissions test cheat devices.

Concern was also raised that, some nine months on from the emergence of the VW story, the opportunity to investigate VW’s behaviour and, potentially, to take legal action, seems to have been let slide.

It recommended that:

  • the government set out a recall timeline it expects VW to keep to, and the action it will take if VW does not
  • the Vehicle Certification Agency measure the exact contribution that VW’s cheat device software made to meeting Euro 5 emissions standards, which might then facilitate investigations and court action in the UK and further afield

The DfT was found to have a robust project appraisal system. However if decisions on the environmental impact of individual projects are made in isolation across multiple projects, it lead to an aggregate impact that cannot be fully mitigated.

Board level discussions take place regarding key environmental issues, but it is unclear how effectively these are linked to the strategic discussions and decisions elsewhere.

Recommendations were made:

  • for a detailed cumulative impact assessment, including non-monetised impacts on biodiversity and landscape, to be put in place for all projects
  • that consideration be given as to whether key environmental issues are considered sufficiently below board level, particularly when decisions about the environmental impact of a particular project are being considered.

The DfT was found to have good performance against the majority of the Greening Government Commitments, which set out goals for departments to tackle their carbon emissions, water use, waste, and supply chain impacts. Network Rail is however not currently included within the list of departmental bodies which must report against these standards and the Committee therefore recommended that it be included.

Improved compliance with the Government Buying Standards, which include mandatory sustainability requirements for contracts, was shown with most contracts meeting the standard.


While the DfT has been found to have taken many positive steps relating to sustainability issues in the transport sector, there is still more work to be done.

However, with a government grappling with Brexit issues, and the resulting uncertainty on key policy areas such as renewable energy, air quality and the UK’s position under the Paris Agreement on climate change, the likelihood of achieving more certainty for investors seems remote for the foreseeable future.

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About the author:
Sophie is an environmental law specialist at LexisNexis with 13 years’ experience.

Sophie moved to LexisNexis from Shoosmiths LLP where she was a Senior Associate. Prior to this Sophie trained at Browne Jacobson LLP and spent 6 years at Eversheds LLP. Sophie is a non-contentious environmental law specialist with experience in advising on all environmental aspects of real estate and corporate transactions, environmental compliance, contaminated land, waste management, water law, sustainability, producer responsibility and chemicals regulation.