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Hope at the end of the tunnel

Championing the clean transport agenda

Bringing together sustainability and transport

Mary Hewitt, a transport consulting partner, looks back at the Western Gateway’s Green Growth Conference and explores some of the points raised during the breakout session she facilitated on the topic of clean transport.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Western Gateway’s inaugural conference focused on stimulating green growth and investment across the region. I was delighted to facilitate the clean transport breakout session in the afternoon which brought together two of my favourite topics – sustainability and transport.

Those that know me and work with me know my obsession with thinking about the whole system and the same is true of both transport and the sustainability agenda. Despite the naysayers, there is no doubt that we are in a climate emergency and that we need to take action and take action fast. However, if we are going to fix things, or at least prevent further decline, we cannot take steps in silos.

Plan for the long term

We need to think about the interdependencies across the system, we need to think logically about the order in which things happen and plan for the long term. One of the challenges faced in both the sustainability world and the transport world is that the asset lifecycle needs long-term thinking and planning, but government policy does not always support this.

For example, we cannot just look at one transport mode. With transport being one of the biggest polluters, both in the UK and worldwide, everyone recognises that more needs to be done in this space. However, with governments battling multiple priorities and challenges, especially in a post Covid world, high inflation and a real and possibly sustained cost of living crisis, sustainability is not always front and centre of economic decisions.

Advocating rail

I will pin my colours to the mast here – I am huge advocate for rail. It is clean, fast, efficient and (mostly) much more sustainable than many other transport modes. I firmly believe, especially post Covid, that rail should be the backbone of a sustainable British transport system.

Cars and lorries are some of the largest polluters (86% of domestic transport emissions, compared to rail’s 1.4%) so the easiest win in terms of reducing emissions is to get fossil fuel-based cars, lorries and vans off the road.

Many local regions are starting to realise this and think more holistically about their public transport systems, but national government also needs to support this. The French government rescue deal for Air France stopped the airline from flying routes where there was a viable train service. In a world where railway revenue has been decimated, for the long term, simple government policies can and should help to stimulate demand. It will be really interesting to see if the railway can capitalise on the current high cost of fuel – so far, I see limited evidence of this happening, but there is a huge opportunity here. With behaviours post Covid still bedding in, how do we ensure that sustainable and clean transport are part of our build back better and greener strategy?

Carrot or the stick?

Another focus of the discussion during the breakout session at the conference was around penalties versus incentives, and I have been thinking about this ever since. Which do we need, the carrot or the stick? I don’t know what the right answer is here, but I do know that the question elicits some very strong views, probably depending where you sit within the system.

Personally, I am of the view that incentives work better, but I am also of the view that the “polluter pays”. I think in this space we need to be brave and test different models. From a UK perspective, we should be looking to the rest of the world and copying the successful and learning from those that may not have worked.

Collaborate and innovate

My final observation is that we can only deliver clean transport if we all work together. It needs to bring out the best of the public sector, the private sector and academia – they may sometimes struggle to work together, but there is a real need here to collaborate. Risks will need to be taken. We won’t always be successful. We will fail, but we need to fail fast. We also need to innovate, start small, scale fast – we need to pilot, learn and iterate. And then do the same again. And again.

I have worked for the biggest CO2 emitter in Europe and the largest diesel passenger rail operator in the UK. Neither sit well with me but, in both roles, I was focused on delivering change. The lesson I learnt is that you need a shared vision, but that if you all work together to achieve the shared vision, it is easily achievable. I am excited about the possibility in this space and the role that I and the rest of my Deloitte colleagues are going to play in delivering a sustainable future.

You can read more about the Western Gateway conference here.

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