The M4 Relief Road: An Inconvenient Truth

James Byrne says plans for an M4 Relief Road contradict commitments to tackling climate change.

M4 relief road; a development that will almost certainly lead to an increase in total carbon emissions

Glynn and Anderson (2015)

We have just celebrated the Well-Being of Future Generations Bill being passed which will require all public bodies to embed climate change into their decision making.

Not only that, but the Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant, stated that the Environment Bill will establish a clear statutory basis for decision making, which fully recognises the central importance of climate change. It will also ensure that there is a clear pathway for climate change action that will guide investment and future delivery.

So Wales is leading the way with groundbreaking legislation, and is well on its way to being a sustainable nation, right? Wrong! The Welsh Government’s commitment to pursue the M4 significantly contradicts this general shift towards sustainability.

The M4 Corridor Around Newport, The Plan, (July 2014) produced by the Welsh Government says that creating a new 14 mile stretch of motorway , known as the ‘black route’, will “reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and make “Wales more resilient to the effects of climate change”. The draft M4 plan states that the Black Route will “…help to reduce congestion, which should have some benefit in reducing vehicle emissions”. 

In short, their argument implies that building new roads drives down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is an argument based on the false assumption that creating additional road capacity to relieve congestion will also reduce overall emissions because emissions from idling or slow moving cars will be reduced. This, in fact, is a gross over simplification of a very complex equation.

Given the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, in order to avoid dangerous climate change, it is important that the M4 proposals are carefully, and scientifically, examined in relation to GHG. Wildlife Trusts Wales, using funding from the Climate Change Commission Wales (CCCW), commissioned a paper to do exactly that. Professor Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change and Deputy Director at theTyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University and Dr Steven Glynn from the Sustainable Change Co-operative, analysed the potential GHG emission impact of the proposed M4.

They reported that “it is evident that insufficiently rigorous analysis has been presented to appropriately address the implications of the M4 proposal for the total level of greenhouse gas emissions”. They highlight three areas in particular that have either been overlooked or not adequately assessed, namely:

1. Induced demand – The paper highlighted research on how new roads bring unexpected short-term growth in traffic (which may be as a result of diverted traffic from other roads); greater long-term overall growth; greater peak period growth; and limited relief to alternative routes.

As well as increasing traffic levels, new roads lock us into carbon intensive and dependent transportation systems. Therefore the new road is likely to result in increased, rather than decreased, GHG emissions, for the long term.

2.     Embedded carbon – Glynn and Anderson point out that the Welsh Government has not considered the significant GHG emissions related to road building. For example, the manufacturing of energy-intensive construction materials (e.g. concrete and steel), as well as fuel consumed by construction equipment, all create significant GHG emissions. Roads also require ongoing maintenance which itself creates additional, and ongoing, GHG emissions. 

3.     Disturbance of carbon rich soils – They highlight that building a motorway over 9kms of the Gwent Levels carbon rich soils will likely cause these soils to emit potentially vast amounts of stored GHG.

Overall, their conclusion is “At the same time as {Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change} IPCC scientists deliver an uncompromising assessment of the climate change challenge it is troubling that a government claiming an evidence-base framing to its policies is proposing the M4 relief road; a development that will almost certainly lead to an increase in total carbon emissions

Much greater and more innovative thought needs to be given as to why the scheme is deemed necessary and what alternatives exist

If the Welsh Government is to uphold its repeated climate change commitments and develop evidence-based policies informed by science it difficult to envisage how the M4 relief road can be justified…

Let’s not make the challenge of avoiding dangerous climate change even harder with projects that increase GHG emissions and lock us into carbon intensive activities and infrastructure. South Wales and Cardiff does not have to be a ‘Car Capital’.

The Welsh Government must seek a more sustainable transport solution that reduces our dependence on fossil fuels and protects our most precious places for people and wildlife.

If the Welsh Government is truly committed to promoting sustainable living for the Well-being of Future Generations, they must be bolder, have a higher level of ambition and look for better, more innovative, twenty-first century solutions to congestion.

To read the full report from Glynn and Anderson please click here:

James Byrne works for Wildlife Trusts Wales and is the Wales Environment Link representative on the Climate Change Commission Wales (CCCW). Glynn and Anderson (2015) report was commissioned by Wildlife Trusts Wales with funding secured from CCCW.

24 thoughts on “The M4 Relief Road: An Inconvenient Truth

  1. I would have thought you didn’t need to commission research to show that the relief road will increase carbon emissions – it’s plain common sense. Anyone who thinks about these issues will know that more roads leads to more green-house gas. Simply building the road will increase emissions. A new road may lead to faster journey times, but the speed of a journey does not mean we spend less time travelling – on the contrary, the faster we travel the more time we spend travelling. The only way we can hope to achieve a sustainable society is to fully embrace the concept of LESS – less consumption, less travel, less wealth.

  2. Something else for the mix is consideration of what a properly funded and comprehensive broadband roll out for the M4 hinterland could achieve. (Not the current superfarce cymru project !) It has the potential to keep a significant proportion of the modern workforce off the roads as they work from home instead of commuting for a couple of days a week – big impact on peak traffic loading. Also, an acceleration of the work on the Heads of the Valleys road (something that should have been done immediately the mines closed) to finally complete its dualling would relieve pressure around Cardiff/Newport and should promote economic growth a little further west than the Cardiff/Newport bubble.

  3. I agree but environmental groups like the Wildlife Trust have been saying this for years, but the argument was ignored. However, we though getting a report from the UKs leading climate scientists on the issue might have more weight.

  4. The faster the M4 Relief Road is built the better. We desperately need finer routes of communcation within the Severnside area. The Welsh region has to attract far more English business people and companies fo trade within Wales. The Relief Road will allow easier commuting. I have friends in Bristol who would be keen to buy property in Newport and Cardiff, if only we allowed easier access. If the M4 Relief Road achieves one thing it will be to strengthen Severnside and to break the Welsh nationalists’ grip in Gwent and Cardiff.

  5. This article is so wrong-headed one hardly knows where to start. The only nuttier thing I have read is Stephanie Brown’s comment about breaking the Welsh nationalist grip in Gwent and Cardiff! The Welsh nationalists in Gwent could meet in a phone booth! What are you on about?
    Look, reducing carbon emissions is essential. if you tell people it means there will be restricted movement and no economic growth, nothing will happen before the flood. We’ll all fry together. And it isn’t true. Wales can be self-sufficient in renewably generated electricity in a couple of decades. In ten years the car stock can be largely battery drive, given the advance in technology,and the batteries can be recharged sustainably. Space heating energy requirements could be halved with existing technology and.the remaining energy requirement produced sustainably. Those things will require determined policy action and a resistance to vested interests – which certainly cannot be taken for granted. You have to offer people a better life with sustainability, not this killjoy, stop the world I want to get off mentality. Tackle things in order of easiness: space heating first, ground transportation next, air travel last of all. The M4 is neither here nor there. Its the nature of the vehicles on it that matters.

  6. Brian, I agree about broadband. Why is the current roll-out project a “superfarce”? Won’t it do the job? Genuine enquiry.

  7. Environment v Infra Structure is never an easy consideration but Wales must put its infrastructure development before any other consideration. Welsh Labour Government has lost all relationship with reason and is prioritising some toxic and damaging policies before well being of Wales. Having spent some time in South Wales recently I found it frustrating through shear time wastage commuting between Llanelli and Aberystwyth then back to Swansea and Cardiff and back again… (Using public transport (Rail) is not an option unless one has a half day to spare in order to get from Swansea to Aberystwyth via England!!

  8. As someone who works on a voluntary basis with people who have mental health issues, I find Ross Tredwyn’s reference to my views as “nuttier”, and the tone of the IWA article as “wrong headed”, very disturbing. As to his comments, I was trying to make the point that people who hammer home the Welsh nationalist line – i.e some politicians and Welsh language acolytes in Newport, Torfaen, Cardiff, etc – are doing nothing to assist inward investment from our sister region in the West Country. Those objecting to the M4 Relief Road on spurious environmentalist grounds are also complicit in this attack on the people of the Welsh region.

  9. google superfarce cymru and you will find a bit about it. Unfortunately BT had a takedown order against their excellent website which gave the full picture. But see to get the gist of the problem. WAO report has been delayed – should have been out by now. FTTC approach makes no real difference to rural consumers as the broadband signal attenuation across copper wire is actually worse than with ADSL ! Key objective of the programme was to give rural users something approaching parity with urban users to stimulate the rural economy. Unless you are within a few 100m of a cabinet you are potentially going backwards.

  10. @Stephanie Brown.If your views are ‘nuttier’ then about 80% of people whole live in south easy Wales then fall into that category.Since devolution a gang of a)welsh language extremists,b)environmental ‘nutters’ have gained much great powers than the majority of welsh people want or need.We have a political class who seem content to provide legislation that meets current ‘fashions’,while the reality of ordinary life is getting worse and worse. Those whom the God’s wish the destroy they first make them MAD!!

  11. Many before me have countered James’s arguments, some of which i have to say are slightly mischevious but that debate is for another time.

    Let me make it clear, I too support the case for greater use being made of other forms of transport. However, as the building of any transport infrastructure, including the Metro will have an environmental cost – and it is invariably the costs which seem to hold sway amongst some. Never are the wider social and economic benefits from transport infrastructure given the weight many think they should, as is evidenced by the continuing skewed debate about HS2 when its benefits in actually increasing the capacity of the rail network and allow more freight to be moved by train is lost. Less Freight on roads, less CO2 emissions).

    I have a fairly simple litmus test of a question to truly understand the arguments on the climate debate around the M4 around Newport? If a new rail line was proposed to run across the Gwent Levels what would be climate change “experts” view be then?

    I sense that those “experts” in our changing climate would argue about many forms of transport infrastructure interventions – even those which are more sustainable like the bus or the train.

    For that, I think we, if we havent already done so, reached a critical time about the transport interventions needed along the M4 corridor, including increasing the M4 capacity around Newport; I’m not sure we can wait any longer to decide.

  12. The climate has been changing since the earth began – I don’t think the M4 was ever a factor before and it certainly isn’t now. This is just more FUD from the vested interest red-green environmental anti-science lobby – not even worth dissecting really…

    By the way – we would really like an A55 so-called Expressway that works properly up in the frozen north of Wales. Since the WG took over its management it has become a disaster. I, for one, would welcome the opportunity to pump out some plant food while travelling a little faster as I move from the unreal world to the real world and back again.

  13. John Walker, I say with great sadness that you are being irresponsible. You must understand that the great weight of scientific opinion is against you and that human CO2 emission contribute to global warming and climate change, Your previous denials on this site, when investigated turned out to be – let me choose words carefully – tripe. Join the human race and consider how to solve the problem instead of denying it.

    Stephanie, Howell, I repeat. Welsh nationalism is insignificant in Gwent and no-one in that area has to speak Welsh, hear Welsh or have any dealing with Welsh if they don’t want to. So I just don’t understand what you are talking about.. Even the kids in school get a token hour a week which for the most part leaves no mark on them at all. Just think if you lived in Ireland you’d have to pass a Gaelic exam to get a civil service job. No such requirement in Wales.

  14. Jacques,
    The rail system in Wales is indeed in a disastrous state. Recall that the Welsh government has no control over the rail network, which is not devolved. Its sole responsibility is franchising the operator on the existing network. The ripping up of Welsh railways and the subsequent failure to invest in the network was the work of the Westminster government, reflecting the marginal importance of Wales in the UK. That is the neglectful government that you and some others want to restore over Wales.

  15. R Tredwyn

    How do you define “disastrous”?

    Higher passenger numbers than ever before travelling on the Welsh rail network, Also for rail services, higher levels of investment or subsidies than in living memory, depending on how you want to describe it.

    Linking that back to the M4 debate, would agree that more investment or subsidising of rail services and public transport along the corridor served by the M4 is needed; however, sorting out the road solution to the transport demand along the corridor is also required.

  16. @R Tredwyn

    Yes, I think the description ‘disastrous’ requires some justification.

  17. Messrs Protic and Youngman, the state of the network is disastrous. No north-south connection and not one inch of any line electrified in 2015. Subsidy for travellers is not the same as investment in the permanent way. Mr Protic’s link confirms that the Welsh government has no responsibility for the physical rail network.

  18. R Tredwyn

    I am sorry but there is a north-south rail connection, albeit one that involves going along the English Marches where more people live than on any of the north-south routes that ever went through Wales only!

    Having responsibility for the rail infrastructure wont automatically change things, as there has been a fair amount of infrastructure reopened during the time of the Welsh Government and before it. Five rail lines seeing passenger services restored and 32 stations in the last 30 years.

    Anyway, this debate is rather moving away from the tenet of the discussion about the M4. Or is it, because im fairly sure the “green” lobby would argue against us building new railway lines through the middle of Wales and its national parks.

  19. If you think the state of our rail infrastructure is adequate or improving at an appropriate rate you are too easily satisfied. Has Network Rail made 5 per cent of its investment in Wales in recent decades? I doubt it.

  20. The fact that there are improvements to be made to the existing rail network in Wales is not a basis for describing it as ‘disastrous’.

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