Why we need a 60mph speed limit on Welsh roads

John Osmond puts the case for a new approach to development that will supercede conventional notions of economic growth

One of the more eye-catching suggestions in our report Wales Central Organising Principle being launched at our Rio+20 conference today, is that the Welsh Government should acquire powers to enable it to impose a 60mph speed limit on dual carriageways.

At one level this might sound like a mere headline grabbing notion, though hardly populist with the average motorist. But at another level it is an important mark in the sand of what Wales could do if it was really serious about putting in place measures to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Consider the results of this policy innovation. First there would be a wholesale drop in carbon emissions from our cars on the roads, with an enhancement of air quality in urban areas. Second, would be a saving in fuel, with the same effect. Third, there would be a significant reduction in fatalities and accidents, with an incalculable fall in human suffering and rise in human happiness.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the move – that would, of course, mean the Welsh Government gaining the powers to achieve it – would be a demonstration of seriousness. It would be a daily reminder to motorists of what they can contribute to tackling climate change. It would encourage the rest of the UK to follow suit.

The notion of different parts of a country setting different speed limits is far from unique. In the United State, for example, the states set their own limits and they vary according to type of road. Some states have lower limits at nighttime. Generally speaking the upper limit is 75 mph in western states and 70mph in eastern states. Most of the New England states have a limit of 65mph and Hawaii actually has a 60mph limit.

It is important to put such ideas on the table because otherwise the debate over the Welsh Government’s forthcoming legislation on sustainable development (see the consultation paper here) risks falling into a black hole of process, definitions, obfuscation, and good intentions.

Cutting speed limits in motorways and dual carriageway is just one of a series of practical recommendations in the IWA’s report which says the Welsh Government needs increased powers over transport, energy and planning if it is to have a chance of giving effect to its aspirations for cutting carbon emissions. Others include:

  • Firmer controls over car-based, out-of-town developments.
  • Statutory power over Ofgen in Wales so that power distribution can be regulated to increase renewable energy and conservation.
  • Establishment of a regional bank on the lines of those in North Dakota and the German Lander to retain local savings and support sustainable local business, industry and commerce.
  • Greater use of the purchasing power of the Welsh Government and local authorities to support local businesses.

The fundamental issue highlighted in the report is whether we can develop a new economic system that, while allowing for development and innovation, does not depend on conventional notions of growth. Our conventional growth path, which we’ve been following for the best part of 200 years, is unsustainable not just because the Earth’s resources are literally running out – leading to peak oil, for instance – but because the resultant carbon emissions are taking us directly into the catastrophic consequences of climate change.

This is how Professor Gareth Wyn Jones, one of Wales’ leading experts on the impacts of climate change, summarises the choice towards the end of his contribution to the report:

“Given the magnitude of the challenge and pressure of current economic and social problems, even in this country, still more in the developing world, the understandable and inevitable reaction of politicians is to plump for conventional growth – to seek economic space for readjustment. Sustainability is seen as a distant desirable objective –  ‘Oh God make me sustainable but not just yet’! This is a sure recipe for overshoot. Much more work is required to map out a 20-year pathway to a new paradigm. First, however, we must face the issues honestly. This is a process that cannot start too soon. The new paradigm will not be anti-business or anti-science. Innumerable opportunities will occur for enterprise and new businesses, which lower human environmental impact and increase real individual prosperity and facilitate social interactions. Dispersed renewable energy generation could be the key as it would provide local additional income sources and personalise the attainment of sustainability, including energy efficiency.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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