How can policy help decarbonise transport’s most challenging areas?

While the electric revolution is gathering pace within the UK's passenger vehicle market, emissions from the wider transport sector continuing to rise steadily. With this in mind, edie explores how harder-to-abate areas such as freight can be decarbonised.

How can policy help decarbonise transport’s most challenging areas?

A discussion between (L:R) John Lewis Partnerships' Justin Laney; Johnson Matthey's Andy Walker; Michelin Tyre's Alexander Law; Ramboll's Chris Fry; Siemens's Justin Moss and Tesco's Christina Downend is chaired by Aldersgate Group chair Joan Walley. Image: racoon photography

The topic was a key discussion point for representatives from John Lewis & Partners, Tesco, Siemens, Ramboll, Michelin and Johnson Matthey, who gathered at an Aldersgate Group event in London on Monday (11 March) to call for policymakers to adopt a “system-wide” approach to cutting emissions across all modes of transport.

The event was held to mark the launch of the Group’s ‘shifting transport emissions into reverse gear’ report, which urges the Government to avoid setting sustainable road and rail policies in “separate siloes” and to implement efficiency improvements across the transport sector as emerging innovations scale up. Such moves, the document states, could help deliver the “deep decarbonisation of surface transport” needed to meet legally-binding carbon targets.

A key recommendation of the report is for the Government to provide greater support for parts of the transport sector where zero-carbon technologies such as hydrogen, electric vehicles (EVs) and biomethane are “not yet deployable at scale”, particularly for long-distance freight journeys and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). These areas are estimated to account for almost one-third (30%) of the UK’s total transport emissions.

During the panel debate, this recommendation was highlighted by John Lewis Partnerships’ general fleet manager Justin Laney, who argued that a national standard for low-carbon freight and greater financial support for its adoption could spur other corporates to follow in his company’s footsteps. The retailer currently operates trucks powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), and uses biomethane as the standard fuel for its HGV fleet.

“At present, vehicles seem to be being electrified from the smallest up,” Laney said. “Long-distance road freight is, therefore, one of the toughest areas to decarbonise, so I would argue that it needs to be a priority area for investment in innovation and the adoption of clear standards.

“The largest possible vehicle, provided that it is full up, will always be the most efficient way of delivering goods, so as these innovations scale up, we also mustn’t underestimate the potential to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads which improving delivery efficiency can make.”

Beyond initial investments

Laney’s sentiments were echoed by Johnson Matthey’s technical marketing director Andrew Walker, who claimed that a lack of “clear, joined-up” policy surrounding emerging technologies for low-carbon freight is likely to be hampering business ambition and attractiveness to investors.

“Clearly defined policy which allows industry to innovate with confidence, because it can see where it is going, is key,” Walker explained.

“There is also a need for greater support throughout the innovation process – governments, in general, tend to incentivise and subsidies the front end of the innovation process and then fail to invest in scaling it up and sending it to mass-production.”

He cited the example of hydrogen-powered trains, which are beginning to emerge in mass markets across Mainland Europe, as an innovation which policymakers could take greater action to foster through funding, practical support and industry guidelines – as a follow-up to its initial investment.

Similarly, Siemens’s strategic development manager Justin Moss argued that the Government had not yet done enough to give contractors the clarity they need to develop and scale low-carbon technologies in line with major road and rail projects, such as Crossrail and HS2.

“We’ve currently got big tasks at hand and not enough people trained in low-carbon engineering to complete them, so it’s important that contractors get signals from Government know how to plan the skill pipeline and keep momentum going and bring sustainable innovation into play at scale,” Moss said.

An innovation which has received this level of support in governments across Mainland Europe is Siemens’s e-highway system, which powers electric trucks using overhead wires. This concept, Moss said, could prove useful while the UK works to modernise its rail system in order to improve on-track freight routes, which are becoming more popular among the business community due to their low-carbon credentials.

“Taking the fact that much rail infrastructure is Victorian, plus the length of modern freight trains into account, it can take up to 16 hours to get from Hull to Liverpool. We need to really examine what rail infrastructure will need to change in order to make freight by rail efficient enough that freight vehicles can be taken off the roads.”

Wider benefits

The environmental benefits of low-carbon freight, including reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and lower national and local levels of air pollution, have been researched extensively in recent years.

But in order to achieve sector-wide buy-in to accelerate deep emissions cuts, panellists concluded that businesses, central governments and local authorities will also need to collaborate in highlighting the social and economic benefits of such a shift – and the rewards which could be reaped the growth of markets such as EV batteries by other sectors, including the chemical and recycling industries.

Specifically, they agreed that policy could better support the integration of low-carbon transport technologies in ongoing regeneration projects with clear community and financial returns.

“In the UK, we have a necessity to overhaul our infrastructure system, modernising homes and transport while re-wiring all our energy systems,” Ramboll’s director of infrastructure and regeneration Chris Fry said. “If we’re going to do that – and deliver 300,000 new homes every year – we are already investing quite heavily in opportunities which, if approached in an integrated way, can have decarbonisation coming through naturally.”

Fry’s comments echo the findings of a recent Sustainable Transport Hub study, which concluded that integrating low-carbon housing and transport policies would be the most cost-effective and well-received way for the UK to deliver sizeable carbon reductions across hard-to-abate transport areas.

Sarah George

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