LibDem magic - it will be so because we say so

Last Friday, the LibDems launched "new transport polices to create a zero carbon transport system by 2050." And no one noticed. Not even their website, which carried the press release, but doesn't seem to carry the document, Towards Carbon Free Transport.

We are given a few hints how they might achieve this mighty ambition, but are otherwise left to speculate. The hints are:

  • Introducing a distance charge on road freight, related to weight and emissions, as an incentive to shift freight to rail, raising at least £600m a year
  • Establishing a new 'Future Transport Fund' to fund a programme of investment on our railways; removing bottlenecks, providing more trains and reopening lines
  • Backing new North-South and East-West high-speed rail lines to the best European standards to replace internal flights
  • Toughening new legal limits on the average emissions of new cars sold in the EU, to be reinforced with a steadily declining total that reaches zero by 2040
  • Introducing a new 'Climate Change Charge' on internal flights, except life-line routes, starting at £10 per ticket to help fund the 'Future Transport Fund,' which will generate at least £150m a year

So we will still be using trains, planes and automobiles, but they will somehow magically become zero-carbon vehicles. I'm looking forward to discovering how the full document explains how they will achieve this miracle.

UPDATE: They have now (Monday, 8th August) provided a link to the report. As expected, it is a mixture of the sound and the fantastic. Detailed analysis is provided in the Comments.



"Toughening new legal limits on the average emissions of new cars sold in the EU, to be reinforced with a steadily declining total that reaches zero by 2040"

Am I reading this right? All new cars sold in the EU must have zero emissions by 2040? Suuuure...

"Introducing a new 'Climate Change Charge' on internal flights, except life-line routes, starting at £10 per ticket to help fund the 'Future Transport Fund,' which will generate at least £150m a year"

I thought we already had a tax on air travel that took into account the negative externalities? Is this too low? If so, why not raise it instead of making a whole new tax?

Zero-carbon cars - requires 100% renewable fuel (and should we ask about embodied carbon or is that being too awkward?). They are opposed to nuclear, so this isn't hydrogen from nuclear electricity. As we agree, it's going to be interesting to hear how they explain this one.

Air travel - The APD doesn't take sensible account of the negative externalities, and, given the inadequacies of its structure, couldn't be made to do so by increasing the rate. See my comments on here, particularly the last, longer one. Doesn't mean that the LibDem CCC proposal is a good one. Hypothecation of taxes so government can pick winners with the revenues is never a good idea. Just setting the record straight on APD.

There isn't that much detail in the proposals - there's a lot of detail on nitpicking measures, but not much on the key claim that our transport system will be zero-carbon by 2050. There are measures, but there are no explanations of how technically it will be achieved. In fact, all they've got are commitments that emission-standards will be zero-carbon for cars by 2040 and for other road vehicles by 2050. Not only does that leave the question of how technically we will comply with those standards without our transport system grinding to a halt, but even if delivered, it would not satisfy the claim that the transport system was zero-carbon, without similar constraints on the other modes of transport.

Anyway, here is a breakdown of their proposals, for what they are worth:

Increase the RTFO to require at least 10 per cent of all fuel sold on UK forecourts to come from renewable sources by 2015. We would retain the RTFO for a minimum of fifteen years from its date of introduction. This will require safeguards to ensure that fuels do not come from crops which have either displaced food crops or rainforest, and there needs to be full certification. In the longer-term, second generation biofuels such as jutropha or cellulosic ethanol, which do not have these concerns, may be able to play an even greater role, and we would investigate the most appropriate future market mechanisms.

So they're going to get to zero-carbon (i.e. 100% biofuels, hydrogen or electricity) by 2040, but they are committing only to 10% biofuels by 2015, and not promising to retain the mechanism much after that. Even if they committed, at that rate, they'd have got to 35% by 2040. And the reality is that the first 5 or 10% is very much easier than increasing the proportion beyond that, as that small proportion can be accommodated by standard engines without major modification, whereas switching to a 25% ethanol mix (say) would require junking most of our existing fleet of road vehicles, and replacing most of our agricultural production with energy-crop production. I wonder why they didn't commit to more, or discuss the realities of their zero-carbon proposal...

Liberal Democrats would support the inclusion of fleet and freight companies, public transport operators, as well as fuel suppliers within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme from 2012.

We really need to decide whether we are applying our constraints upstream (at supply of fuel) or downstream (where the fuel is converted into useful work). Applying it at both ends, as proposed, will really confuse matters, double-penalising some, and pricing carbon irrationally. The rational approach is simply to apply whatever measure we choose upstream (at point of production or import of fossil fuels), where it can be handled least bureaucratically, but this would deprive politicians of the opportunities to pick winners, it being impossible to distinguish what purposes the fuel will be used for at the point that it arrives in the country. Hence the belt-and-braces approach.

The question of how one would work out rationally what allocation fleet and freight companies ought to receive is as fraught as the question of allocation in the existing sectors. If Eddie Stobart runs more efficiently and could take business off Norbert Dentressangle, should he be prevented from doing so by the fact that he will be penalised under EU-ETS, while Norbert would be able to sell his excess at a profit? This would simply extend the competition-insulation that is provided by EU-ETS to other sectors. To the small extent that competition still survives in a dirigiste Europe, we could kiss goodbye to a lot of what remains. This (though not the other problems) could, of course, be covered by a move to full auctioning of allowances in the EU-ETS, but the LibDems noticeably do not suggest such a measure to accompany their proposal.

We would introduce a mandatory system of colour coded fuel-efficiency labelling across the EU which would also be compulsory in car advertising.

Because the idiots who buy their cars nowadays have no idea how efficient they are, and colour-coding is going to be so much easier to understand and harder to avoid than mpg and g/km figures?

Establish a lorry road pricing scheme, on a pay per mile basis, as already operates within Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. This would also vary according to vehicle emissions. This will be used to provide funding for our new “Future Transport Fund” and is estimated to raise some £600 million a year at a rate of 11 pence per mile.

Because taxing the carbon in the fuel through fuel duty (or preferably a carbon tax applied equally to all fossil-fuels in whatever use) isn't complicated enough. We need to make it more bureaucratic and less precisely connected to emissions by tracking and charging all lorry movements.

Will this be additional to fuel duty, or on top of it? It sounds like the latter (if the former, it is a lie that it will raise additional revenue). Road vehicles already pay massively more for their emissions in the form of fuel duty than they do in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. In fact, they pay very much more than carbon is judged to cost in most other circumstances. What is the justification for adding yet another burden specifically onto road haulage, rather than for targeting carbon-emissions equally? The justification, one assumes, is that "We don't like lorries. Get the bastards off the roads so we can get to where we want to in our cars."

Reduce the need to travel by car and move goods by freight by providing a rail alternative and improvements to local transport (see sections 4 and 5).

I'm looking forward to that door-to-door rail-freight delivery. There may be some logic in trying to increase rail-freight, but there are significant network obstacles that mean that substantially increasing both passenger and freight rail carriage (rather than one at the expense of the other) would require massive investment an order of magnitude higher than envisaged by the LibDems. Whether this is rational should be left to the economics (having internalised the social cost of carbon), and not to some political decision to drive transport onto the railways. As we have learnt recently, there may be many instances where rail is more carbon-intensive than road transport. We should distinguish between the ends (reduction of carbon-emissions) and the means (greater use of railways, provided that occupancy levels are high), and incentivise the former, not the latter.

Shifting the balance of spending from roads to rail and other public transport within the existing budgets for transport. There has been a 42 per cent increase in the cost of road schemes – from £3.5bn to £5bn. This is not a sustainable approach to tackling the traffic on our roads. Liberal Democrats would introduce a presumption against the building of new roads where there is no overall environmental and social benefit.

More cars sitting in traffic jams. That will really help our emissions. Not to mention the resentment of motorists and hauliers, for whom the disparity between the carbon-cost charged to them and to rail operators (and aviation, and others) will be even larger. The carbon-cost to motorists is effectively the difference between the revenues received from the various taxes on them, and the money spent on the roads and associated services. It stands at tens of billions of pounds, before the LibDems increase charges and reduce spending. It is disproportionately expensive compared to the carbon-cost applied to our electricity generation, and even more so compared to the zero carbon-cost applied to heating our houses.

And can we please stop pretending that there is any practical way to calculate "overall environmental and social benefit". What units is that measured in? What they mean is "depending whether we like it or not".

More steeply graduate VED for new vehicles, based on carbon emissions, with a higher level for the higher emissions band, with the most emitting vehicles paying as much as £2,000 per year. The new rate would cover vehicles emitting more than 225 grammes of carbon per kilometre such as the BMW 7 series, Bentley Continental, and four by fours like the Porsche Cayenne and BMW X3 (see our “Green Tax Switch” proposals for more details).

Don't you love the way they pick the models to excite the greatest wealth-envy, not mentioning that family cars like the VW Sharan, Vauxhall Zafira and Renault Espace would also be caught

This sounds reasonable to an environmentalist- tax those gas-guzzlers into the ground. Except a Porsche Cayenne or BMW X3 used occasionally to carry 4 or 5 people (say a school run) will have less impact than a bog-standard hatchback used more regularly with lower occupancy for longer journeys. There is only one rational way to measure environmental impact, and it is not by the size of the car or the engine, it is in proportion to emissions, which is remarkably similar to consumption of fuel. You want to provide a rational signal on energy-use? Put a price on carbon and let people decide how to respond to it. Don't drive them out of their people-movers because you want to attack the rich.

Index fuel duty to GDP growth except in periods of oil price spikes. Fuel duty should rise in line with rising incomes to maintain incentives for economy.

Because the environmental impact varies with the price of oil? Of course, expressed as a percentage, fuel duty will never represent a stable price for the externality. But rather than rely on political judgments, how about setting a carbon tax as a specific price per tonne of carbon (convertible into a price per litre of petrol or diesel), and leave it at that?

Where cars are an essential for the survival of communities in sparsely populated rural areas (defined by the Countryside Agency as the least densely populated 5 per cent of the country), the first car for a household (excluding second homes) would benefit from a 50 per cent discount in VED and we would also make provisions for the introduction of a Rural Fuel Discount Scheme in the most sparsely populated areas of the UK, inhabited in total by no more than 3% of the UK population.

No potential for winners and losers there, then. You live miles from anywhere, but you happen to live in a part of the country where population density is in the sixth centile, tough. You live in an area that is in the next centile down but next to the local shops and facilities, lucky you.

And that Rural Fuel Discount Scheme won't be bureaucratic and intrusive at all. You've got to give them credit, though. They couldn't be trying harder to master this micro-management stuff. Gordon must be giving Ming lessons on the flight back to Edinburgh.

Introduce mandatory EU average vehicle emissions targets through technical means alone – 130g/km by 2015, 95 g/km by 2020 and zero carbon for all new cars by 2040 – backed up by an effective system of penalties and incentives.

How is that average calculated? Average of performance of the various models in a manufacturer's fleet? Average of cars on the road? Average of new cars sold? Whichever, that 95 g/km is cloud cuckoo land, and as for zero-carbon... Well, we know what to say about that. The funny thing is that the LibDems think that vehicle emissions targets are the way to get to zero-carbon, even if it were practical. When you get to really low emissions, probably even by that 95 g/km target, you are reliant primarily on fuel rather than efficiency to deliver the reductions. How will you apply standards to the vehicles to ensure that they use 25 or 50 or 75% biofuels? Once they are being made to handle high proportions of ethanol or biodiesel, manufacturers' standards will make no difference to what is actually put into them. This is a proposal from a group of people who have no grasp of the realities. It is about sounding good, without ever having to worry about making good on the promises.

Support the introduction of a mandatory system of colour coded fuel-efficiency labelling which would be required in car advertising.

Didn't we already have that one?

Extend targets to all other vehicles, so that by 2050 all freight vehicles in 2050 are running on electricity, biofuels or other renewable fuels.

Where is this renewable "electricity, biofuels or other renewable fuels" (e.g. renewable hydrogen) going to come from? If we rely on renewables for our transport needs as well as our current electricity needs, we will need to produce twice as much renewable electricity as our current total production of electricity from all sources. Unpredictable, intermittent sources such as wind and wave can only supply upto 20% of our supplies because of network constraints. Balancing their intermittency without the use of fossil fuels will be an interesting challenge. Predictable intermittents, such as tidal and solar can provide additional output if the storage issues can be cracked, but solar is catastrophically uneconomic and likely to remain so (or, looked at from the other way, a world in which it is economic is a world in which energy is so expensive that it will have a dramatic effect on our way of life that makes the sort of model considered in the LibDem paper anachronistic), and there are limits to the practically-recoverable tidal resource. We are unlikely to crack the storage of this power so that much more than another 20% of our demand can be supplied from it. Its contribution will probably be much less - certainly so, unless the Severn barrage gets the go ahead. Will the LibDems support the development of the Severn barrage? Geothermal resources in this country are very limited. That leaves the lion's share of the doubled electricity demand to be supplied from the one dispatchable renewable source - biomass. But our biomass resource can supply only a fraction of that demand before having a significant impact on agricultural production and prices.

If the LibDems are going to go down this road, they ought to be honest. Their model requires a drastic reduction in the amount of travel and haulage compared to the current situation. Not just shaving a bit off here and there, but an order-of-magnitude reduction. What they are really saying is that people should walk or cycle most places, consume local produce (and hope it doesn't get wrecked by extreme weather), and rarely travel out of their area. This may indeed be the future following peak oil (and then peak gas), but the LibDems ought not to pretend that they have answers that will let us live our current lifestyles, only greener, in those circumstances.

We remain committed in the longer term to a scheme of road user pricing that would charge vehicles according to their use of congested roads and according to their emissions;

Interesting that they put it off to the "longer term". In other words, "we like it, but after the No.10 petition, we haven't got the guts to commit to implementing it". 

Road-user pricing is beloved of many economists, but I take the view that such economists are misguided. Why would we want to spend billions on a system that allows the Government to track our movements, in order to "charge vehicles....according to their emissions"? We can charge people according to their emissions more precisely, and at much less cost, bureaucratic overhead, and intrusion by internalising the cost of carbon into the cost of the fuel.

This is about congestion - carbon is not just a red-herring, but a reason not to introduce the mechanism. And the joy of congestion is that those who cause the congestion and those who suffer its effects are one and the same. There is no basis for a mechanism to internalise the externalities of congestion - everyone is already paying with their time in proportion to their contribution to this externality. It is fully internalised by its very nature. As I have asked many times before, does anyone believe that anyone heads off to sit in a traffic-jam at rush-hour on the M25 for the pleasure of it, or with frivolous lack of consideration? Are there many people out there who regularly get stuck in such jams who would not give a lot more than a couple of quid to avoid the jams? The reality is that people get into these jams, contributing to the congestion as much as they suffer from it, because their circumstances allow little alternative. The answer is to change incentives so that fewer jobs are located remotely from where people live, or conversely, so that people can afford to live close to where they work. It is not to try to price people off the roads when they are already enduring a heavy price and are showing by their actions that they cannot respond in any other way despite strong incentive to change. 

If there is any argument for road-user pricing, it is the one the LibDems don't even seem to be aware of - that it enables the cost of road-maintenance to be charged more precisely to those who use the roads. But there are good arguments why this is no more rational a justification than the others - would one want to see roads maintained only in proportion to the extent that you use them, or in proportion to the importance of their availability, regardless of how much you use them? I rarely use the road between my house and the nearest hospital, but I would pay as gladly towards its maintenance as for the road I use daily to travel to work.

We reiterate our support for local congestion charging schemes, where local areas are in favour of these and where public transport alternatives are available, with revenues raised being invested in local public transport (either directly, or to service the interest payable on bond finance). 

Congestion-charging like that in London, you mean? Where, after an initial impact, cabbies report that the streets are as congested as ever. Where people's contribution to congestion is not measured by whether they are travelling down a particular road at a particular time, but simply whether they crossed a boundary.

Why would you do road-user pricing and congestion charging? Doesn't the one make the other redundant? Or should road-users be punished for their selfishness by being not just double-charged, but triple- or quadruple-charged for their impact on the environment?

Draw aviation into the UK and IPCC emissions inventories, and ensure that the UK emissions target in the Climate Change Bill includes aviation and shipping; 

Aviation ought indeed to be considered like any other carbon-emitting activity. But the Kyoto and CCB mechanisms are inappropriate means for constraining emissions. While these are the only games in town, there is justification for including aviation within them, if that is administratively practical, given the difficulties of pinning emissions to a particular country. But this ought not to stand in the way of looking for a better way of taking account of the risks of anthropogenic global warming. 

Promote new global developments and mechanisms such as internationally agreed aviation fuel duty, if necessary renegotiating bilateral treaties. 

Yes (again, in the absence of better mechanisms for internalising carbon externalities), but you're going to need something more persuasive than simply wanting to renegotiate to persuade others to join the renegotiations. 

Back EU action on aviation (as a forerunner to possible international agreements in the longer term) by putting aviation into the EU emissions trading system at a level that reflects the higher impact of emissions at altitude. 

The EU-ETS is a disaster. Inclusion of aviation would marginally improve it in one way (broadening the sectors covered) and weaken it in another (allocations get even more complex and irrational). The net effect will be that it is still a disaster. Better to focus on a replacement for EU-ETS that puts right its many failings, than to overlook those failings and shoehorn further sectors into a broken device. 

More still to come... 


Have just read your post. Is superb. Am glad to see such a high level of journalistic enterprise online. Also not entirley convinced by the claims by the Liberals over what they'll do. As its hugely unlikely they'll ever get into power to enact any of this I 'spose they can say whatever they want.

Thank you. And I'm excited to discover your site, which shares my interest in all matters energy- and environment-related. Good luck with developing your site, and I hope we can look forward to some good cross-fertilization.

I hope to return to this, to finish dissecting the LibDem proposals, but as you will see from our home page, there's never enough time to provide full deconstruction of the number of idiocies doing the rounds nowadays.