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.

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