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Climate constraint

15 May 2020

Last week’s LTT Zoom discussion saw Professor Phil Goodwin present a paper on the topic of ‘Covid-19 and after: transport appraisal and planning in a time of imperatives’. He summarises the paper in his column this week (see overleaf) and the full version can be found on TransportXtra. As one would expect, this was a thoughtful piece of analysis and we urge readers to consider the important matters it raises about policy formulation and appraisal practice. Boiled down, the question the paper addressed was, should climate change sit alongside all the other impacts in scheme appraisal? Or is climate change such an imperative that it should sit above appraisal, acting as a filter for what policies can legitimately be brought forward?

The Government’s amendment to the Climate Change Act last summer, committing the UK to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, gives the question topicality. This is heightened by the possible looming legal challenge being brought by environmental groups who want to block the Government’s road investment strategy. Their case is based on the same climate grounds that saw the Appeal Court  rule that the Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport was unlawful. 

We find ourselves agreeing with Phil’s argument that, for any imperative, “there has to be clarity about what level of public agreement, and what level and type of trust, establishes the imperative in the first place, and those thresholds must – surely – be set very high.” 

Applying that principle to climate, the questions arise, is the science robust, and has the democratic process been followed to make net zero legitimate? On both counts we have reservations. 

This is not the right forum for a lengthy discussion of science, other than to say that the ‘settled science’ message is a shorthand that hides important uncertainties and disagreements.

On democratic process, net zero was written in to statute with no proper costings, no analysis of its implications, and no proper debate within parliament or amongst the public. Many MPs have pet road projects. Would they all have supported net zero if told it might mean waving goodbye to their road? 

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