Mark Sinclair's Blog: 25 February 2009 - Statistical snarl-up
25 February 2009
Mark Sinclair is boss of leasing firm Alphabet
I was slightly surprised to see some recent Department for Transport statistics showing that UK road traffic fell by a mere 1.4% last year.
As the Times' transport correspondent Ben Webster pointed out, this drop amounted to just 90 fewer miles per car user compared with 2007, despite soaring petrol prices and a plunging economy.
But something else - something bigger - is also going on. Up the road from the DfT, at the department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, they reckon that road fuel consumption really dived last year. Petrol volumes were down by nearly 9% and diesel down by 7%.
BERR's data is more accurate than the DfT's mileage survey, since the former is a measurement and the latter an estimate. Both reports could only be right if drivers were squeezing significantly more miles per gallon out of their cars.
Moreover, since CO2 emissions are directly proportional to the volume of fuel consumed, BERR's figures imply that carbon emissions from surface transport also fell dramatically in 2008 - by around 8% in just 12 months.
That really is an amazing shift. At that rate, the UK could halve its transport emissions in less than a decade, especially with an economy weakened by the financial crisis, oil prices set to rise again and with both private and business car buyers already moving strongly towards low-CO2 cars. There'd be little need for more penal carbon taxes to coerce businesses and drivers into making greener choices, for one thing.
Unfortunately, fuel duty and VAT, as well as CO2, are directly proportional to fuel volume. Can anyone see the Treasury surrendering 8% of its revenues from fuel each year just because the end of cheap oil is helping to turn traffic congestion into a self-correcting problem?
Those fuel taxes will have to be replaced from somewhere. It doesn't take a genius to work out that a long term collapse in the volumes of transport fuels, however good that is for business and the planet, will make it even more certain that fleets will be hit in future by penal VED rates, road pricing and other green-veneered taxes.
It's not that I am unconcerned about climate change or the need to move towards more renewable energy. But some people might think that, by putting more emphasis on the DfT's estimated traffic data and less on BERR's hard facts, the Government is deliberately misleading the public about the speed with which CO2 emissions are already responding to forces beyond Westminster's control.
The DfT frequently sends out statistical reports to the media. One of its latest, called "Transport Trends 2008", shows that road traffic is increasing whilst motoring costs are falling relative to other modes of transport. That makes for a good soundbite about the need to "do more about the problem" - i.e. tax road users even harder. But in spite of the report's title, the most recent traffic data in it dates from 2006.
By contrast, BERR's up-to-date energy figures are available on its website but people have to know where to look for them. .
In the end, the message for fleets is the same. All parties are bent on raising road taxes, irrespective of whether overall CO2 emissions fall more quickly or more slowly than expected. To minimise their financial and fiscal exposures, and to maximise resilience to economic pressures, companies need to aim for the lowest CO2 profiles that they can achieve across their fleets - commensurate with competitiveness and fitness for purpose, of course.
Behind the façade of official statistics, Britain's transport energy picture is changing fast. Businesses need to ensure their fleet strategies keep pace.