More rail, less carbon

Submitted by AWL on 6 February, 2019 - 11:27 Author: Mike Zubrowski

New evidence backs up the need for a socialist, environmentalist transport policy. Meanwhile, Transport For London (TfL) and London Mayor Sadiq Khan continue to pursue regressive market-based “environmental” policies, which will likely make no reduction in emissions.

A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) released at the end of January makes the case for “aggressive” expansion of railways across the world, to reduce net transport emissions. Rail is the most efficient motorised method for passengers to travel, and much more so than cars and planes. In freight, it comes second only to shipping, and only just.

Diesel and electricity account for roughly half of rail energy use each, and rail’s global energy use has remained roughly stable in recent years. When electricity is predominantly coal-powered, electric power is no greener, but with a transition to renewable and nuclear energy sources it could be extremely green. It is most green with high passenger and freight throughput.

The rail system should be nationalised under democratic control, and be publicly funded to be free at the point of use for passengers. It should be progressively electrified and aggressively expanded to replace other medium and long distance forms of travelling. Logistics and freight transportation, too, should be taken into public ownership, facilitating a transition from road and aviation transport to rail and shipping.

TFL has introduced regressive congestion charges for minicabs, which will see drivers lose up to 25% of their already low take-home pay, disproportionately impacting low-income and BME workers. Weekly protests, starting 4pm Mondays on London Bridge, have been called by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain’s (IWGB) United Private Hire Drivers branch (UPHD). Crucially, TFL’s policy will likely have little impact on emissions.

The IWGB instead proposes: capping the number of minicab vehicle licenses; place a licensing cost levy on private hire operators (e.g. Uber), based on the frequency of private hire vehicles from their fleet appearing on the congestion zone, rather than a flat daily charge to the drivers themselves; enforce workers’ rights within the industry, as minimum wage enforcement would encourage operators to reduce the number of vehicles; and provide “rest spaces” for minicabs in London zones, as 50% of the time drivers spend on the road is without passengers, often “idling”.

Significant investment to reduce the cost of public transport, and promote cycling and walking, would have much greater positive impacts, too.

The world’s fourth-largest fleet of coal-fired power plants is Germany’s. In the last weekend of January, the German coal commission published its plan for how to phase out coal. However, it falls seriously short of even the Paris agreement, starting reductions of CO2 emissions only after 2030, and emitting 1.3 billion tons over the “below 2C pathway” limit.

A study by the science journal Nature forecasts that climate change will impact half of the world’s aquifers over the next 100 years. Water held underground in soil or between rocks, “groundwater”, is the world’s largest source of freshwater and is relied on by over two billion people. Climate change will impact the way rain and moisture soak into the soil and “recharge” the groundwater. As well as impacting water supplies, changes to moisture could push soil past a “tipping point”, from a net absorber of CO2 to a net emitter, according to a different study by Nature, thus creating a positive feedback loop driving further climate change.

Internationally, socialists and the labour movement must seek to limit climate change as much as possible. But we must also seek to mitigate its impacts, in this case through taking the sourcing, transportation and distribution of fresh water into collective democratic control, and ensuring everyone has adequate access.

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