Beyond COP26: The first 100 days

By Andy Bagnall 

It’s just over three months since leaders from around the world gathered in Glasgow for the United Nations summit to agree further plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The Conference of the Parties delivered a ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ with a view to turning the 2020s into a decade of climate action. Transport too had its own dedicated day on the conference agenda with decarbonisation of the sector increasingly a subject of global attention. Indeed the sector now accounts for around a fifth of total global carbon emissions and remained a stated priority for the UK government leading up to the summit. 

As we look to build on the legacy of the COP26 conference, plans for our transition to net zero will need to be both inclusive and holistic, comprising not just the right infrastructure investment but creating a reformed commercial environment which allows the private sector to help deliver against the government’s wider policy priorities. 

Today I was pleased to speak at the first in a series of ‘Beyond COP26’ roundtables, where policymakers and business leaders met to discuss the scale of transformation needed. I outlined the vital role rail has in driving a stronger, greener economy, reducing carbon emissions by two thirds compared to cars while connecting more people to greater opportunities, especially in the North and Midlands. 

Projects like HS2 not only create thousands of jobs (so far HS2 has created 20k jobs, 400k supply contracts 95% of which are UK and 65% SMEs) but once built will provide the much-needed capacity to facilitate long-term modal shift to cleaner, greener trains. Linked with Northern Powerhouse Rail, which addresses vital east-west connections for both passenger and freight trains, the right infrastructure has the potential to form the backbone of a truly integrated, low carbon transport system. 

Increasingly, the cost of inaction – to the environment, to livelihoods and the economies of some of the UK’s regions – is becoming greater than the cost of taking the necessary steps to transition to net-zero. RDG welcomed the record investment committed to by government in last Autumn’s Integrated Rail Plan but scaling back the plans means leaving out key pieces of the jigsaw (the eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail) which will inevitably hold back the ability for the railways to power the levelling up agenda and the drive to net zero. 

Of course major infrastructure projects come at a cost and given the challenging post pandemic fiscal environment, investment in rail must be weighed up against competing priorities. But there are other ways to generate direct economic and environmental benefits in the present. Our ‘Easier Fares for All’ report identifies that, with the right reforms to rail fares, we can make best use of current capacity on the network, more evenly spreading demand by reducing price cliffs between peak and off-peak times. Smoothing the ‘shoulder peak’ cliff edge would encourage even more modal shift, with a better range of good value fares for green public transport. 

The rail freight sector too is ideally placed to help support a green pandemic recovery, operating on a truly national scale. A single rail freight path can generate up to £1.5 million of economic benefits each year with no investment required. Moreover, freight removes the need for 7m lorry journeys, each year saving around 1.4 million tonnes of CO2.

Additionally, the emergence and deployment of new technologies will be integral to meeting future sustainability ambitions. As an industry we want to go further to decarbonise by applying technologies such as hydrogen and battery to the network, as well as more traditional electrification, with power coming from renewables. Building on the railway’s proud history, we want to unlock new, high skilled jobs for the green industrial revolution. Our analysis suggests that this programme could support an average of 6,000 jobs per year between 2024 and 2050. These are jobs both in delivering the work, via a rolling programme of electrification and the assembly of the new rolling stock that would be needed. 

Rail will be crucial to delivering a fair recovery across Britain’s cities, towns, leisure destinations and rural areas, reducing social exclusion and supporting the levelling up agenda. How reforms and infrastructure will be delivered across all levels of government though remains a crucial question. Bringing decision making closer to home is essential to ensuring that public transport is a positive force for communities – whether on a regional or local level - but there will be difficult trade-offs to be managed between local leaders and Great British Railways. Ensuring that that relationship and those accountabilities are delivered in a way that best serves local communities will be vital.

It is up to both government and business to build on the legacy of the COP26 conference and deliver a stronger, greener future for Britain, but the right conditions must exist to enable companies to rise to the challenge. The UK’s net-zero strategy needs the right policy landscape and the right levers available to the private sector to successfully keep global temperatures below 1.5C degrees. 

 

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