At a glance: Everything you need to know about the UK’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan

The Plan covers all forms of transport

Published following months of delays, the Transport Decarbonisation Plan outlines the Government’s approach, in terms of timings and technologies, to decarbonising the UK’s highest-emitting sector. It covers all domestic forms of transport including road, rail, shipping and flights, but international shipping and aviation are not covered.

The plan featured headline commitments to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and buses and for the government’s own fleet of cars and vans to transition to electric vehicles (EVs) by 2027 instead of 2030.  The Government pledges to move 25% of its car fleet to ultra-low emissions by December 2022 as an interim step.

Click here to read edie’s round-up of all the reaction to the new Plan from key green economy figures and organisations.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps heralded the new Plan as “just the start”, and each mode of transportation will decarbonise in different ways. Here, edie summarises what the Government has planned for passenger vehicles, HGVs, shipping, aviation, rail and public transport.

Zero-emission passenger vehicles

Prior to the publication of the Plan, the Government confirmed its decision to bring the ban on new petrol and diesel cars and vans forward from 2035 to 2030.

Numerous green groups, including Energy UK, have released policy recommendations urging the Government to create a mandate on the sales of electric vehicles (EVs) for manufacturers, in a bid to provide clarity to the national car market.

A zero-emission vehicle mandate (‘ZEV mandate’) has already been championed in California, where manufacturers are tasked with increasing the share that ZEVs have as part of overall sales. If they fail to do so, they must purchase credits from other manufacturers.

With some of the biggest automakers unveiling new steps to champion EVs in the UK – including the announcement of Nissan’s first Gigafactory in Sunderland, green groups and those operating in the sector are clear for more regulatory clarity on the role of EVs in the net-zero future.

Under the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the Government has committed to publishing a green paper that will set out a regulatory framework for vehicle manufacturers.

The framework will cover fuel efficiency of new cars, vans and HGVs and how improvements to these vehicles can create new jobs in the sector. One key inclusion that will be in this framework is the “possible introduction of a new phased industry mandate for zero-emission vehicles”. The Government has claimed it will likely launch a consultation on this mandate.

The Plan also confirms that the UK will introduce petrol with up to 10% ethanol (E10) blend as standard petrol in September 2021.

HGVs and Buses

A headline commitment of the new Plan is to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol HGVs and buses. The Department for Transport (DfT) will consult on proposals to phase out polluting vehicles weighing between 3.5 tonnes and 26 tonnes from 2035 and those weighing more than 26 tonnes from 2040. It has stated that earlier dates will be set if the private sector agrees that a faster transition is “feasible”.

The Plan reiterates the intentions of the National Bus Strategy’s vision to decarbonise the UK’s bus fleet, including supporting the delivery of 4,000 new zero-emission buses and the infrastructure to support and charge them.

The Government is also consulting on a phase-out date for the sale of buses and coaches that don’t meet zero-emission criteria.

Many private bus companies and local authorities have already set targets around e-bus and hydrogen bus sourcing targets, including First BusArriva, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach, all of which are working with WrightBus.

Rail and freight

Rail is a bit further behind in its decarbonisation transition and currently accounts for 2% of the UK’s total emissions. In 2018, the Government agreed to phase-out diesel trains by 2040, but currently more than half of the UK’s rail network is yet to transition over to electric variants.

The Transport Decarbonisation plan alludes to “creating a net-zero rail network by 2050”, by utilising “sustained carbon reductions”. The commitment to remove all diesel-only trains from both passenger and freight by 2040 is reiterated.

The Government will also support the development of battery and hydrogen trains, which will be used to make diesel trains cleaner until they are removed from the network altogether.

The Government has previously reiterated that new rail projects, including the flagship HS2 project, can align with the net-zero movement. HS2 was proposed when the UK was still performing towards the aims of the 2008 Climate Change Act. But the Conservatives have since enshrined a net-zero emissions target into law, and there are serious concerns as to whether the HS2 project can comply with this vision. By the Government’s own admission, greenhouse gas emissions associated with the construction of HS2 “are significant”

The Government has confirmed it will release a “rail environment policy statement” which will “set the direction for the rail industry on environment issues”. These issues include decarbonisation, air quality, waste and biodiversity. A “rail freight growth target” will also be introduced.


Aviation has often proven a sticking point in discussions around the transition to low-carbon transport. Globally, it accounts for 3% of emissions but, Covid-19 pandemic aside, has been one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors in terms of climate impact.

Detailed in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan is a commitment to align the sector with net-zero by 2050. Plans for delivery are broadly in line with those put forward by the UK Sustainable Aviation coalition, which last month published new targets for members to reduce absolute net emissions by at least 15% by 2030 and 40% by 2040.

As part of the Plan, the Government has launched a “Jet Zero” consultation, committing the sector to net-zero by 2050. For domestic aviation, an earlier target of 2040 will be consulted upon by the DfT. This will cover all airport operations in England as well as all domestic flights. All airport operations in England would also have to be zero-emission by this deadline.

Heathrow’s COO and Jet Zero Council chief executive  Emma Gilthorpe said: “I welcome the leadership from the government in committing to a target of net-zero emissions from aviation by 2050 and recognising that the aviation industry is committed to delivering on this, too.

“We look forward to working with government to translate this ambition to action and deliver a future where people can continue to enjoy the benefits of air travel – without worrying about their impact on the environment.”

There is no mention of stopping airport expansion or capping growth in passenger numbers – a measure recommended by the Government’s own advisory body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

Public transport

Prior to the publication of the strategy, IPPR analysis warned that the Government’s efforts to decarbonise transport are focusing too much on EVs and could fail to provide affordable and clean transport alternatives that cut overall car use.

The analysis suggests that efforts to decarbonise road transport through the uptake of EVs could deliver an 11% increase in car traffic by 2050 and a 28% increase in car ownership. The analysis expresses concern about the resources required to accommodate the 28% increase in car ownership – equivalent to around 43.6 million vehicles.

Globally, traffic emissions look set to rise by 16% by 2050 based on current policies, as demand for transport activity doubles, according to the International Transport Forum’s (ITF) Transport Outlook 2021 report.

The Plan reiterates the delivery of £2bn over the next five years into cycling and walking infrastructure with the aim that half of all journeys in towns and cities will be cycled or walked by 2030 – as outlined in the Ten Point Plan. A “word class” cycling and walking network will be created by 2040.

Some green groups have claimed that the Transport Decarbonisation Plan has “missed an opportunity” to promote alternative low-carbon modes of transport.

The IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission’s head Luke Murphy said: “Though we await the detail, there appears to be little additional funding to support the switch to more affordable and clean transport alternatives to cut overall car use. This would be a missed opportunity to put in place a new approach to how we all travel, with solutions benefiting wellbeing, health and environment.

“We need to massively expand the provision of and affordability of clean public transport options, such as trains, buses and trams, while helping more people to regularly walk and cycle, alongside a shift to electric vehicles for those that need them. We also need to see a firm commitment from the government to review the £27bn roads programme, including schemes that are currently planned as well as future ones.”

The Plan does include a £12bn investment into local transport systems over the current Parliament, which the Government believes will enable local authorities to prioritise modes of transport that reduce emissions and congestion while improving air quality.

The Plan also confirms the creation of at least one zero-emission transport city and four industrial ‘SuperPlaces’.

Maritime and shipping

While the morning press release mentioned maritime emissions fleetingly, the document does pledge to “plot a course to net-zero” for the UK domestic maritime sector. This looks set to include indicative targets from 2030 and to reach net-zero “as early as is feasible”.

As part of the Plan, the Government will consult on a planned phase-out on the sale of new non-zero emission domestic vessels and will extend the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) to support renewable fuels of non-biological origin used in shipping.

Internationally, the Plan will see the UK press for greater ambition during the 2023 review of the International Maritime Organisation’s Initial Greenhouse Gas Strategy and urge accelerated decarbonisation.

At the International Maritime Organisation’s latest meeting in November, members voted in favour of amending measures designed to limit the carbon intensity of ships. While proponents say the measures will make each ship more efficient, the general consensus is that the rule will leave loopholes for the sector as a whole to increase emissions through to 2030.

According to research from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), emissions from the global shipping sector will grow by 14% by 2030 if the amendment is formally adopted next year. Without the amendment, the body predicts a 15% rise.

Matt Mace 

Comments (4)

  1. David Dundas says:

    A very useful summary of this transport decarbonising plan, but as a summary it cannot cover every detail, so the comment about the energy costs of the construction of HS2 might might also note that these costs will be similar for the construction of any new railway line; the adage "that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs" applies to most new construction of assets that will see a long-term reduction in the emission of fossil CO2 what is important is that a greater use of rail over cars will see a reduction in energy use.

  2. Richard Phillips says:

    Just a note on EVs. The electricity has got to come from somewhere!
    Renewables are constantly being waved as the answer to the major source of low-carbon power, but it places us in the hands of mother nature, where security of supply is vital.
    The only other power source completely under out control is nuclear, hardly ever mentioned. But fission is all we have in this no carbon policy, until we have fusion, still a long way off, I am afraid.
    But natural gas does use four hydrogens for every one carbon.
    Count your blessings
    Richard Phillips

  3. David Dundas says:

    It’s fine to have a plan for how energy consumers will commit to decarbonising by using fossil free energy, but that is the use side of the clean energy equation, but where is the plan to ramp up that energy which is the production side of it? As it is likely that most of our primary energy will need to be delivered by clean electricity by 2050, how is the UK going to ramp up the present electricity generation from around 15% of primary energy, of which half is from burning fossil natural gas?

    At a guess clean, electricity will have to be ramped up to around 90% of all primary energy, or 6 times more electric power than at present, and half of that also needs to be decarbonised? Is the generation of clean primary energy another department’s problem to be ignored by transport?

  4. Richard Phillips says:

    David Dundas is quite correct in pointing out that energy use is only half of the equation, how about generation.
    The UK is not rich in natural sources of non-carbon energy, but we do have nuclear. This could be a rich source of non-carbon power, but does not seem to have thrived as its inception heralded. Why not??
    I do recall, at Harwell, watching on TV, the Queen opening the first commercial nuclear power station in the world, Calder Hall. Nuclear electricity is still only less than a quarter of our generation, are we really serious about burning carbon???
    Does the petroleum industry have any influence in this area?
    Richard Phillips

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