Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Bring in pay-as-you-go road pricing to aid net zero chase

This article by Alison Payne first appeared in The Herald on 12 October 2022

WHEN we think about reaching net zero, there is a danger that we think only “big polluters” need to change their behaviour. However, that is not the case. Our individual behaviour matters greatly.

Private polling conducted for the Scottish Government earlier this year found that people overestimate the emissions caused by power stations and under estimate those caused by transport.

Transport is the largest contributor of emissions in Scotland, but is reforming slowly. In 2020 there were more than three million vehicles on our roads, and more than 95 per cent of them used petrol or diesel.

To hit net zero, switching to electric vehicles is not enough. We need to reduce car use altogether, which is why the Scottish Government has a target of a 20 per cent reduction in car kilometres by 2030.

Prior to the pandemic traffic volumes on major roads in Scotland had been broadly increasing over the past three decades. By 2019 traffic on major roads was nearly 50 per cent higher than in 1995.

The real problem we have is that around half of journeys are under five kilometres, just under one-third are less than two kilometres and more than one-in-seven are less than a kilometre.

The shorter the trip, the easier to change behaviour, with the dual benefits of reducing care use and promoting active travel.

Reform Scotland believes that one reform that would help change behaviour is replacing Vehicle Excise Duty and Fuel Duty with a form of pay-as-you-go road pricing.

In a country as diverse geographically as Scotland, taxing someone simply because they own a car is unfair. It doesn’t reflect the ability of that individual to choose another easily available mode of transport and takes no account of the congestion they are causing.

It also creates a perverse situation where a less wealthy person with an older car, who drives rarely, pays more in tax than a wealthier person with a new car, who drives often.

In contrast, road pricing schemes are intended to link drivers’ choices with the actual costs they impose on the transport system. Pricing can vary to take account of the availability of public transport and the demand on the road space at any time.

All of Scotland’s roads would be covered by the scheme, but the cost of using each road would depend on a number of factors including the time of day and congestion levels. As a result, many quieter roads, particularly in rural areas, would have no charge at all. Local authorities and partners could work with Transport Scotland to consider the charging levels appropriate for the circumstances in their areas, so the scheme would have both local and national elements.

VED and Fuel Duty are reserved to Westminster, but like the Scottish Government, the UK Government has net zero targets. This is an opportunity for both governments to work together towards a common goal, with a progressive policy which is, in any case, an inevitable consequence of electrification.