In what may be a world-first effort to tackle the climate impact of cars, the government of Wales said Tuesday that it would scrap all its major road building projects, and place tight carbon-related restrictions on future proposals.
Wales, a country of 3 million and one of the four nations that make up the U.K., set up a panel in June 2021 to review the environmental cost of 59 planned road projects. Most of the schemes, including new bypasses, highways, and road expansions, were designed to relieve congestion. But the panel concluded that ultimately these projects would encourage more private car use long-term, fuelling yet more demand for new roads and preventing Wales from reaching its 2050 net zero emissions target.
“Round and round we go, emitting more and more carbon as we do it,” Wales’ deputy climate change minister Lee Waters told the Welsh parliament on Tuesday. “We will not get to Net Zero unless we stop doing the same thing over and over.”
Of the 59 road schemes reviewed, 32 will be scrapped, including a third bridge over the river Menai and an 8-mile stretch of highway meant to ease pressure on the main route into North Wales. Only 17 are going ahead, and on these the panel recommended alterations that should stop them fuelling more car demand. The rest will require further review.
Limiting road development is a key solution to the climate crisis—but one that few governments have dared consider. “Transit planners have been saying for decades that if you build more roads, you get more cars: more greenhouse gasses, more pollution, more congestion. But governments have kept on enacting big road-building packages,” says Matt Finch, a U.K. policy manager at campaign group Transport & Environment.“This feels like it’s pretty revolutionary.”
Cars make up a big chunk of many countries’ annual greenhouse gas emissions—around 12.5% in the U.K., and 15% in the U.S. To reduce those emissions, many leaders have so far focused on replacing gas-powered cars with electric vehicles (EV subsidies received the bulk of green transit funding in the U.S.’ Inflation Reduction Act, for example). But because EVs require scarce and environmentally-damaging materials to manufacture, policy experts say they’ll never meet all of our clean transit needs. A much faster, cheaper, and more effective way to reduce transit emissions, many argue, is to use fewer cars, and pivot instead to public transit, cycling, and walking.
Going forward, the Welsh review panel says, new roads will only be built if their proponents can prove they will support the transition to non-car travel, help Wales adapt to the impacts of climate change or improve safety with relatively minor changes. On the flip side, schemes will be rejected if they increase capacity for cars or allow cars to travel at higher speeds.
It’s a controversial policy. Welsh opposition politicians, and even some members of the ruling Labour Party, say the government is ignoring the plight of communities living in areas experiencing a lot of traffic congestion. Residents of Llanbedr, a village that was meant to have traffic relieved by a now-canceled bypass, say they are planning to block a key road in March to protest the decision.
Others say the government is taking away road investment without providing alternatives for reducing congestion. While Waters, the deputy minister, says Wales is investing in rail and bus services as well as walking and cycling projects, locals say promised improvements have been repeatedly delayed—particularly in less densely populated and historically marginalized North Wales. “It comes at a time when faith in the public transport system is at an all time low,” a local business correspondent wrote in an op-ed.
There is clearly work to be done here. If the government wants to be truly world-leading in the transition to low-carbon transit, it’ll have to provide carrots for car alternatives, as well as sticks for car-use. But Wales has now set the direction of travel.
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