Road to Zero: A missed opportunity?

The development of the Government’s Road to Zero Strategy offered a unique opportunity for policy-makers to set out their vision for a cleaner, greener UK transport system. Although encouraging in parts, overall the Strategy still leaves plenty of questions unanswered, says Ewa Kmietowicz.

Yesterday saw the launch of the Government’s long overdue Road to Zero Strategy, setting out how it plans to tackle the problem of decarbonising UK transport. Now the largest-emitting sector of the economy, transport accounts for 28% of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Publication of the strategy is welcome, not least because most action in this sector to date has been largely driven by EU regulations rather than domestic policy; but there are places where it doesn’t go far enough. There are serious issues to address – rising GHG emissions, poor air quality and associated health concerns, noise and congestion – which will not be resolved by the market alone.

Part of the CCC’s work, advising Government and Parliament on carbon budgets, is to set a vision of how the country needs to evolve if the UK is going to play its part in combating climate change. For most sectors of the economy this is transformational if not always visible; for transport it will be both.

By 2050 we will require near full decarbonisation of UK road transport. What does this mean in practice? We’ll need to completely change the energy which powers our cars, vans and lorries. As well as investing in ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs), the large majority of which are likely to be electric, we need to move towards zero-carbon electricity that drives them. We need to develop reliable charging infrastructure that gives consumers confidence that the vast majority of journeys can be completed in ‘zero-carbon’ mode. And we need to find clean alternatives for trucks – with hydrogen or electrification looking like the front-runners. As drivers and consumers, we’ll also need to adapt and be flexible. Technology alone will not deliver a low-carbon future. This will mean being willing to change the way we do things – plugging in our cars when stopping for a coffee break on a long journey; down-sizing our choice of car; not expecting next-hour deliveries; and being more open to car sharing or not owning a car at all. For shorter journeys, rather than automatically driving, we could get some exercise by walking or cycling instead, and for journeys in busy cities, using public transport can help to reduce traffic for everyone.

The Government’s strategy goes some way towards realising this vision. First and foremost, it sets a pathway for electric cars and vans to 2030 and 2040. Our view is that this element of the strategy could and should have gone further to present a faster pace of transition, with regulatory backstops to sharpen the attention of the manufacturers. Some players in the industry are dragging their feet. There is constant innovation in the car industry and many companies have shown what a great choice EVs can be. All manufacturers can develop excellent electric and hybrid versions of the best-loved models; demand is there and so are growth and export opportunities for those leading the way.

But the average cost of an EV is still high, with the UK’s most popular pure electric vehicle (Nissan Leaf) costing £23,000, including the government grant. Our reports at the CCC have repeatedly called for financial support to cover the higher up-front costs of EVs and it is good to see these continuing, at least for the foreseeable future. There will be a time when these aren’t needed any more and this point is getting closer, given the rapid reduction in battery costs and continued learning which is also driving down costs. The Government’s strategy sets out steps to help the UK transition towards this future by addressing key financial and infrastructure barriers to support emerging markets and demonstrate to consumers that they have a real choice in what they drive.

However, there are gaps in the strategy that could derail this vision. Most serious of these is the lack of detail in the framework for new car, van and future truck CO2 limits as the UK prepares to leave the EU. Whilst the EU framework isn’t perfect, the UK is part of an EU-wide car market, and the industry itself has recognised some of the risks around not being part of this system – such as manufacturers not investing to make right-hand drive EVs, limiting choice for consumers and supplying their dirtiest models to the UK market.

Whilst the strategy opens the possibility to change fiscal incentives to help consumers make cleaner choices when purchasing vans, there is no such commitment for cars, despite growing evidence that this is creating real distortions in the market and working against other regulations. The voluntary industry-led proposal to reduce emissions from HGVs is non-binding and risks not going far enough either.

Transport is vital to a well-functioning economy and there are important choices to be made about how we want to see our transport system develop and play its part in tackling climate change. The technologies are there now; more people are taking up EVs with remarkably positive feedback; new models of low-emission vans are being developed to offer better choice; and lessons from behavioural science and ‘nudge’ strategies can also help. The time is ripe to harness these trends and create a UK transport system that is cleaner, quieter and healthier all round.

Ewa Kmietowicz is Transport Team Leader in the CCC secretariat