Road intersection from above, via Shutterstock

Net-zero carbon and transport

07 May, 2019

Greg Marsden

Reading time: 4 minutes

CREDS Co-investigator, Greg Marsden, discusses how the Committee on Climate Change’s net zero report impacts the transport sector.

Working in a sector where emissions are now 4% higher than they were in 1990, the Committee on Climate Change’s net-zero report might seem like an impossible ask. Part of the reason transport is at the rear of the transition is because in 2003 at a 60% target it was assumed transport would not need to fully decarbonise. Now, no ifs, no buts. There are though quite a few ‘hows?’

First, the report majors on the transition to Electric Vehicles (EVs) and to some other form of propulsion such as Hydrogen for HGVs. This is critical in any future scenario as we cannot be net-zero unless the vehicles we move around in are running off clean energy. The report suggests that the falling costs of use that will accompany the transition to EVs will be a major source of saving to the average UK citizen and one which could offset the costs of heat decarbonisation. This is where I am glad I am commenting on rather than writing such a report. The interactions are so difficult to deal with. In the Department for Transport’s latest road traffic forecasts, it suggested that if we leave the costs of car travel to decline with rising EV uptake then we risk inflating the amount of movement on the road by 100billion miles per year compared to scenarios which follow current trends.

The net-zero report also suggests the need for a 10% modal shift away from the car to be achieved. On the face of it, this is a positive recommendation that I would rather see included than not. However, it feels incompatible with a scenario in which we are also relying on a decline in motoring costs brought about through the EV transition. So, there is an urgent need to decide what we want the future of paying for road transport to look like. If we want to use the cost savings to offset heat decarbonisation then that has very big implications for how we then have to manage transport.

A second observation on the report’s treatment of transport is that it appears to take a very static view of the demand for travel as being how we get about today, projected forwards, but with different propulsion technologies. The work which one of the CREDS predecessor centres did showed that we are already in the middle of a transition in how we travel, with 15 to 20 years’ worth of trends which show we are, per head of population, travelling less than we used to, at least for the under 60s. The demand for travel will evolve and could be shaped to be lower than it is today, not just the same (or indeed greater) but on different modes. It has happened without deliberate Government policy, perhaps it could happen more with the right policies in place?

The report is also silent on the potential for a revolution in mobility technologies. It still talks about car versus public transport when there is the potential for very different mobility markets to emerge with connected, shared and more autonomous options changing how we own and use cars. CREDS is funding the Commission on Travel Demand to look at these issues and we are at the start of a new inquiry into Shared Mobility. Some issues which have already emerged from the inquiry include:

  • The potential carbon savings from reducing the total car fleet size.
  • The opportunity for greater sharing of transport in use to cut emissions (there are currently 36 million empty car seats on the commute every morning).
  • E-bikes and E-scooters as radical disrupters to the decision-making around travel in the 5 to 15 mile range.
  • Shared micro-mobility services between the current car and bus model which are flexible and on-demand may be able to fill some key areas where there is currently ‘no alternative’.

We need a bold vision for how we want to use these innovations to deliver a lower carbon transport system that works towards net-zero.

There is, of course, lots more to digest from the CCC’s report. I have not even touched the recommendations on aviation here. To sum up, I see the report as setting out the challenge. The analysis shows that the transition could happen in this timescale and that greening the fleet is critical. However, it is not a how to manual or a menu card but a call to action. My initial reading is that professionals right across the transport sector are going to have to continually innovate and challenge Government to enable this to happen. We are also going to have to stop doing some of the things we have always done if we want to achieve anything like the ambition set out.