New Aldersgate Group report warns 'whole system approach' that integrates action on road, rail and public transport will be necessary to cut setcor's carbon impact
Barely a day goes by in the UK without news of a major investment or product launch in the electric vehicle (EV) sector. Last week alone saw the launch of a new supercharger from Tesla that promises the fastest recharging times on the planet, Legal & General snapped up a stake in electric vehicle charge point company Pod Point, and Honda promised that it will be only be selling electric and hybrid cars and vans by 2025.
So you would be forgiven for thinking the UK's green transport future lies in going electric. That if we could just get everybody out of their old petrol and diesel runarounds and into a spanking new EV, we would see greenhouse gas emissions plunge and carbon targets hit.
But the reality is not so simple, according to a new report released today by the Aldersgate Group. UK carbon emissions have fallen by more than 42 per cent since 1990, but that is mainly thanks to the rapid removal of coal-fired power generation from the UK grid and the accompanying influx of renewable technologies. Transport emissions over the period have not fallen, and are now the single largest greenhouse gas emissions for the UK economy.
Decarbonising surface transport - a category which includes road and rail travel - is essential for meeting the UK's carbon targets. Electric and zero emission vehicles are a big part of the solution the report stresses, pointing out the UK should aim to take a lead in a sector expected to be worth up to £2tr a year by 2030. But building out EV infrastructure and encouraging private car owners to switch to electric won't be sufficient on its own to deliver the deep decarbonisation that is required, the report argues.
The business group warns an integrated strategy that brings together road and rail planning under one roof, reforms freight transport and boosts the role of public transport in everyday life is also required.
"With emissions flatlining for several years now, government needs to fundamentally rethink its transport policy and work across departments to deliver the modern and ultra-low emission transport system the UK needs," said executive director Nick Molho. "This means taking an integrated view of the whole transport system to ensure that new transport infrastructure projects deliver the best environmental and economic outcomes, empowering local authorities to develop low carbon transport systems, incentivising greater resource efficiency across the automotive industry and targeting innovation support to technologies that can help cut emissions in difficult areas such as heavy commercial vehicles, long-distance journeys, and rail."
The report set out a number of concrete policy suggestions for government to enact, which it said would start to address some of the systemic challenges to decarbonising the transport network.
Firstly, the government should devolve long-term funding and powers over transport strategies to local authorities. This would help develop more integrated urban transport systems and in turn cut emissions associated with shorter journeys; almost three-quarters of journeys in urban areas are under five miles. Giving local authorities revenue and capital funding to develop their own integrated transport strategies will be key to offering greener alternatives for these types of trips, the paper said.
Local authorities should also be given more control over how new housing developments interlock with existing transport services. In October a report from campaign group Transport for New Homes accused developers of building housing developments that render residents dependent on personal cars for getting around, with new housing estates often built on the edges of towns where pubic transport links fail to keep pace with the new housing. "Building new homes in fields so remote from good public transport networks, major employment hubs and services, means that sustainable transport options are perceived as limited from the start and too difficult," the report said at the time.
If given the right powers, local authorities could require housing developments to better connect to local transport systems and even squeeze more funding from house builders to pay for them.
Meanwhile, urgent action should be taken to address the shortcomings of the current rail and bus network. Although the numbers of people using the UK's rail network has been growing in recent years, the user base is sharply concentrated around London and the South East and discontent with the quality of service - and price of fares - is high. Meanwhile the number of journeys taken by public buses has fallen by 340 million since 2011.
Developing a national bus strategy to improve and expand services, integrating car clubs with local transport systems and investing in walking and cycling infrastructure will all help lure people out from behind the wheel of their car, the paper suggested.
And the government should also guarantee subsidies for EV until they reach cost parity with fossil fuel cars, the paper said - amove that should help drive greater investment in infrastructure and encourage more drivers to take the plunge. The suggestion was backed by Christina Downend, climate change manager for Tesco. "Government must also accelerate its own ambition on this agenda, such as by guaranteeing upfront purchase grants on electric vehicles and establishing the UK as one of the best places to develop new electric vehicle technologies," she said.
But shifting personal transport habits is only part of the picture. The paper also had a number of suggestions for how the government should deal with business-related transport.
For example it calls for support for the development of Urban Consolidation Centres (UCCs): warehouses on the edge of urban centres where deliveries from a number of retailers are collected and sorted, before final delivery is arranged by destination. As such, the number of deliveries to any one area would be minimised, cutting air pollution and reducing emissions, the paper suggested.
"UCCs offer important opportunities to make significant emissions savings by reducing the number of kilometres travelled and ultimately reducing total emissions, particularly if the goods are then loaded onto zero emission vehicles for the 'last mile,'" the paper pointed out.
But UCCs currently rely on public subsidies through grants or local authority assistance to break even. To improve the economics of the model, the paper argues councils should work with neighbouring authorities and freight operators to co-ordinate across regions, while the government should work with other Whitehall departments to better promote the wider benefits of UCCs and take steps to make them more economically viable.
Government should also support the development of new technologies for zero emission freight, and in the meantime shift more road freight onto the rail network to push down emissions, the paper added.
"Radical change is needed to decarbonise long distance heavy trucks," commented Justin Laney, general manager of fleet at the John Lewis Partnership. "These vehicles are the most challenging to tackle, but also the ones that deliver the biggest benefit. Our view at John Lewis Partnership is that biomethane is the best solution for the next 20 to 25 years, and after that electrification, whereby trucks are supplied by power from an electrified overhead line. Government has been very supportive of low carbon trials, and it is important that continues, combined with creating the right tax and fuel duty regime that provides a sound, long term business case."
Finally, new fiscal measures are needed to incentivise the public and transport operators to embrace greener travel options. As people switch to electric cars tax revenues from fuel duty will decline - the think tank Policy Exchange reckons fuel duty revenues could be up to £23bn lower in 2030 than assumptions from the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Instead of charging people for fuel, the Aldersgate Group report suggests real-time travel data could enable a system of charging road users based on the distance travelled and the time of day the journey took place. "This could ensure congestion is managed more efficiently and that roads are paid for fairly," the paper said. "Such a levy or fee for road use could influence a proportion of road users to change their driving or travel behaviour to better manage the demand for the use of road space."
The government's low-carbon road transport strategy last year was dubbed 'Road to Zero'. A government spokesperson insisted today the UK is moving towards a greener transport network, expressing confidence that by 2040 new diesel and petrol cars will be a thing of the past. "Through the Road to Zero strategy, the government has invested nearly £1.5bn to support this transition, and also supports bus travel through £250m every year," they added.
But the latest official data indcicates transport emissions remained flat between in 2017, and the harsh truth is that the UK's journey to zero emission transport is still barely out of the driveway.
The market for EVs may be hotting up, but campaigners fear without a concerted effort to establish robust rail and bus networks, and comprehensive strategies to address freight emissions - including the soaring numbers of online delivery vans on the roads - the UK will struggle to curb its largest source of emissions.
Much of the Aldersgate Group's policy proposals echo those of researchers and campaigners put forward in the last few months. Pressure is mounting on the government to take action, and today's report offers some clear suggestions of where to start.
UK insurers will be called upon next month by the Prudential Market Authority to stress test their business against a range of climate and transition risks
As ClientEarth warns too many councils have missed deadlines to submit air quality plans, government confirms fresh support from its Clean Bus Technology Fund
Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd's speech at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development - in full
Britain has its first new deep coal mine in decades - a result of pretending climate change isn't political
Rebecca Willis argues the controversial decision to approve a new coal mine in the UK is symptomatic of a wider political failure