All the levers are there, but which ones should be pulled?

Transport touches everyone, as soon as they leave their home, even if they are walking.

It’s one of the few aspects of our lives when local and national government influences do really affect everyone. Other policy areas, such as health or education only affect those who use them.

And that’s why the formation of the external advisory panel, the Net Zero Transport Board is important.

It provides independent, objective and impartial advice on transport decarbonisation to the Department for Transport (DfT).

All governments take advice, and having this from a broad and informed panel such as this will hopefully enable it to make more rapid, and appropriate, policy decisions.

Meeting every 6-8 weeks, the Board has four objectives:

  • Provide advice during the development of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan
  • Provide general advice on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport, particularly thinking about the longer-term technology and behavioural changes needed to deliver transport’s contribution to net zero
  • Provide constructive challenge to, and identify cross-cutting risks/opportunities across, the Department’s decarbonisation workstreams
  • Reinforce the link between government, industry, academia and the wider public.

The board will help to shape and inform the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, coming later this year.

A ‘credible and ambitious pathway’

The plan will be the first time the UK will lay out its approach to decarbonising every form of transport, setting out a credible and ambitious pathway to delivering transport’s contribution to carbon budgets and to meeting net-zero by 2050.

Take a look at the list of the 20 NZTB members and you’ll see some familiar names. Indeed some of them are on the ITT Hub Advisory Board.

The Government has put out a ‘call for ideas’. It’s online and easy to complete. Act now: it closes on 31 August 2020.

Not on the NZTB and feel left out? There’s an opportunity for everyone to give their views on the development of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan to “ensure that it works for everyone.”

The Government has put out a ‘call for ideas’. It’s online and easy to complete. Act now: it closes on 31 August 2020.

The ‘Call for ideas’ asks direct, simple, questions with free-flow text boxes, such as “What action do you think government should take to reduce the greenhouse gases produced from the distribution of goods across the country and delivery of goods to shops or residences?”

Another is: “What do you think government should be doing to reduce the greenhouse gases that are produced from: cars, buses and coaches, vans and lorries, passenger rail, aviation, freight, maritime and other transport?”

What did they say to Grant Shapps?

But back to that first hour-long meeting for a moment. What did the 15 members (a further five have since joined) tell the government?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was in the chair, alongside Kwasi Kwarteng (Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) and Rachel Maclean (Minister for Environment and Transport Decarbonisation Minister at the DfT)

After introductions, Grant Shapps revealed that there would soon be a meeting with the logistics sector to discuss the “harnessing of zero emission and automated-vehicle technologies.”

Rachel Maclean told the meeting that there are “enormous economic opportunities offered from the transition to cleaner forms of transport, which could result in not only a cleaner, greener country but could also create new jobs and level up the economy.”

She said that this first meeting would focus on how the habits and emissions reduction seen during COVID-19 could be locked in, and how in the longer term a green recovery could deliver the economic opportunities.

‘Short-term’ action on green recovery

All 15 members had been asked to come prepared to talk on two themes relating to short-term green recovery actions:

  • What further measures should the Government take to minimise an increase in transport emissions as lockdown restrictions are lifted?
  • What other short-term priorities do you have, and what should government and others be doing to implement them?
Concern: People will buy cars as restrictions are lifted in to avoid public transport

In the discussion that followed, the members said:

  • While important, reducing emissions would require more than a move to more sustainable forms of transport. Rather, it would be necessary to reduce the number of journeys taken, and that ‘avoidance’ in the ‘avoid-shift-improve’ hierarchy currently did not get sufficient attention
  • COVID-19 lockdown restrictions had led significant numbers of people in the UK to virtually carry out activities normally done in person, such as going to the GP, and that there was an opportunity to lock-in these ‘virtual habits’
  • Reducing demand for transport would necessitate expanding virtual solutions, such as seen through the increase in video-conferencing during lockdown restrictions, and a change in employment habits. Government should work with employers to encourage more virtual interaction following lockdown restrictions – for example through a “Decarbonising Transport Employers Club”, made up of employers committed to reducing emissions from transport, which could increase public consciousness around the issue, in addition to government sending a signal on the benefits of virtual working
  • Public transport weekly and monthly ticketing could be reviewed, in order that employees are not incentivised to travel to work every day
  • Steps to incentivise cycling and waking during lockdown restrictions were welcomed, which combined with much reduced traffic levels – and later temporary infrastructure measures – had resulted in a significant increase in cycling and walking. This had demonstrated the ability of government to change behaviour when conditions are right, in particular when people felt safe
  • Infrastructure change and investment was necessary to lock-in the increase in active travel, and while incentivising active travel was positive, it was also necessary to discourage less sustainable practices
  • E-bikes would be central to a green recovery and government should provide greater support including: extending the Cycle to Work Scheme to include e-bikes; and reviewing the Government’s Road Investment Strategy to see if it could provide greater support for e-bikes
  • The difference between rural and urban situations should be considered when planning to reduce emissions and work should be done on ‘mobility and accessibility hubs’ in rural areas, including car share solutions and remote working spots, such as seen in the work by England’s Economic Heartland
  • There needs to be a strategy for bringing commuters from rural areas to urban areas in a sustainable way, and a consideration of how active travel could play a part in that. This would require consistency of policy-making at the city level, and consistent grants across different cities to discourage car usage
  • Housing planning should be reviewed, as the Housing Infrastructure Fund tended to fund roads, rather than sustainable transport infrastructure
  • The impact of government messaging on avoiding public transport where possible as lockdown restrictions are lifted needed to be considered. Based on anecdotal evidence, people would turn to purchasing cars as restrictions were lifted in order to avoid public transport, and there needed to be government intervention to steer people away from making that choice. In particular, people needed to be steered away from buying the most polluting vehicles, noting that while in general cars were becoming cleaner, emissions from cars were rising due to an increase in purchases of larger vehicles
  • EU vehicle standards on emissions would apply until 1 January 2021, and that work was required to prevent an influx of the most polluting vehicles into the UK market
  • Measures were needed to ensure vehicles purchased during and following lockdown restrictions were electric
  • While people increasingly shopping online had led to a reduction in the number of journeys taken to and from shops, it also meant that more vans, often second-hand and relatively highly emitting, were coming onto the market
  • The Benefit-In-Kind (BIK) tax had been very positive in increasing uptake of electric vehicles, and ways in which this scheme could be expanded should be explored
  • Urban freight could be increasingly moved via active travel solutions if suitably enabled, for example by reviewing the regulations associated with cargo cycles and electronically assisted walking devices, within sensible safety boundaries
  • Many logistics businesses operate from rural areas, and government should do more to encourage the development of shared ‘urban microhubs’, from which businesses could conduct less emission-intensive last-mile deliveries
  • The Government should consider a threshold on its own procurement, such that successful tenders would need to demonstrate steps taken to reduce their freight emissions.

Kwasi Kwarteng said that 2019’s net zero legislation had been a “game-changer,” and recent years had shown we “could reduce emissions while also growing the economy.”

What further action should government be taking to support jobs and the economy in line with its transport decarbonisation goals?

He says the government is aiming for 2m jobs in low-carbon industries by 2030, up from 460,000 in July 2020. He adds: “It will not be possible to achieve emissions targets without substantial decarbonisation of transport.”

The long-term green recovery: A possible plan?

Turning to long-term action for a green recovery, Kwasi Kwarteng asked members:

  • What further action should government be taking to support jobs and the economy in line with its transport decarbonisation goals?
  • How can the Government support businesses to reduce their transport emissions as they recover?

This is a critical question as, we would suggest, the public mood is set for benefits to be ‘locked-in’ and the public seems likely to support measures that in ‘peacetime’ would take years to introduce.

In response, 17 points were made by members:

  • Following the recent pledge to “build, build, build” in recovering from the impact of COVID-19, the Government should note the many benefits of investment in building cycling and walking infrastructure
  • Recent research for the TUC showed that investment in cycling and walking infrastructure would have the potential to build 103,000 jobs over the next two years, and that 33 new jobs would be created for every £1 million invested in cycling and walking. Other than energy retrofit, this evidence showed cycling and walking to create the most jobs per-million-pounds-invested, with road building ranking second worst
  • The actions the Government had taken to support the bus industry during lockdown restrictions and the funding for 4,000 zero emission buses were welcomed, but government should do more and bring forward support for bus manufacturers
  • More focus needed to be paid on the decisions people were making during the transition period to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles, rather than a sole focus on the ‘end date’. The Government should review and expand the incentives for electric vehicles in line with the programs in other countries, alongside improving charging infrastructure to support the transition
  • The Government should do more to engage with local authorities on the operational challenges faced by local bus operators as a result of COVID-19
  • Local authorities were convening countryside network roundtables on how to reduce emissions from local transport, and that they had expressed concern about the limited nature of transport in rural locations
  • Further engagement by government with local authorities on the issue of strengthening the electricity grid to enable it to cope with the demands of increasingly electrified transport was recommended, alongside the potential creation of a taskforce including local government, OfGem, distribution network operators and National Grid
  • A long-term green recovery would be dependent on strengthening the electricity grid, and there was significant potential for technologies such as road induction charging to contribute to transport decarbonisation
  • There needed to be a renewed focus on Clean Air Zones at all levels of government, to ensure they did not fall off the agenda
  • The decline of fiscal receipts on fuel duty as road vehicles were increasingly electrified required consideration. A 2017 Policy Exchange report forecasted a £20 billion annual decrease in HM Treasury income as a result of declining fuel receipts if transport were decarbonised in line with Carbon Budget 5 road user charging may need to be considered to account for this loss as roads currently contribute more to the economy than they cost
  • Consideration should be given to the systems challenges associated with electrification and increased use of hydrogen in transport
  • The use of hydrogen and fuel cells would be essential to delivering on carbon budgets, but that at the time of the meeting the UK invested much less in the sector compared with other countries such as Japan and Germany, and investment levels in line with those dedicated to the Faraday Battery Challenge were required. This could have resulted in a £1.5 billion boost to the economy
  • The focus needed to be not just on hydrogen but also on fuel cells which could contribute £16 billion to the economy by 2050, and the Prime Minister’s June 2020 commitment to invest in the sector was welcomed
  • A decarbonisation road map was required for transport, looking across a range of technological developments including the hydrogen economy, synthetic fuels and fuel cells
  • There was significant potential for reducing emissions in short-haul domestic aviation through electrification, and through the application of new technologies in maritime
  • There were questions around the compatibility of regional airport expansion with transport decarbonisation goals
  • The aviation sector had committed to net zero by 2050, and that there levers to be deployed to achieve this, with the most important being sustainable aviation fuels, for which the price would need to be brought down and production scaled up. The Government should provide matched funding support for sustainable fuel plants at scale and better coordination on the issue was required across government. The Government should further explore the potential for the production of certain sustainable aviation fuels to be carbon negative.

Responding, Rachel Maclean said that although hydrogen had “not been discussed at length,” it is “very much a focus within government.”

She is “working closely” with Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) Ministers on Clean Air Zones, and assured attendees that there would be updates on Clean Air Zones “in the near future.”

The Jet Zero Council was launched 14 days later, with its first meeting hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

There are many touchpoints when it comes to net-zero, and while it received relatively little mainstream media coverage (as most non-COVID news does these days) Grant Shapps mentioned the new Jet Zero Council (nice play on words), which is intended to “bring about the better cross-government coordination on aviation decarbonisation.”

Added Mr Shapps: “Hydrogen would undoubtedly have a big role to play on the path to decarbonising transport,” saying that government would “pursue and investigate a wide range of technologies to deliver on climate targets.”

The Jet Zero Council was launched 14 days later, with its first meeting hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

It was part of an announcement of £350m to cut emissions in heavy industry and “drive economic recovery from COVID-19.”

Like the NZTB, the Jet Zero Council brings together government, representatives from the environmental sector, aviation and aerospace industry to “tackle aviation emissions in line with the government’s ambition to achieve the first ever zero-emission long-haul passenger plane.”

Will aviation be in competition with road for green fuel? If so, which will the Government favour?

Aviation is a relevant sector for us to consider on this page, due in part to the cargo services it provides.

Chaired by the Transport and Business Secretaries, the first Jet Zero meeting discussed how to decarbonise the aviation sector while “supporting its growth and strengthening the UK’s position as a world leader in the sector.”

The members will look at how to work across their sectors to achieve these goals, including new aircraft and engine technologies.

“These could include using new synthetic and sustainable aviation fuels as a clean substitute for fossil jet fuel.”

Hang onto that thought for a moment.

Green fuel: Road v air

Aviation has relevance when we come to talk about green fuel.

Commercial electric aircraft are many years away (if ever, due to the low energy density of battery-electric storage compared with the amount of energy-per-tonne that Jet A-1 aviation fuel delivers).

As Phil Moon explained in a recent ITT Hub podcast, the quickest and most sustainable way to green transport is by the use of HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) instead of diesel or Jet A-1.

In he sets out everything you need to know about HVO in straightforward terms. It’s very enlightening and well worth a listen.

In terms of policy levers, HVO is simple to implement, requires no infrastructure investment and can be used today.

Very environmentally friendly, HVO is a form of solar power (via plants) and all from truly-sustainable products. Crucially, it’s not plants specifically grown for fuel.

At the moment, it is more expensive to use than diesel, so Phil Moon suggests a fuel duty cut to incentivise its use.

HVO is a form of solar power (via plants) from truly-sustainable products

We’d be more radical and suggest holding the duty on HVO, and increasing it on fossil-fuel diesel. This would not be popular – no-one likes paying more tax – but it would have the twin effect of encouraging take up at no cost to the Treasury, while increasing the tax-take from diesel and creating a differential as we move towards net-zero.

The only fly in the ointment might be that the DfT is looking to HVO as a way of achieving net-zero for aviation.

That’s fine, it’s just that at the moment, HVO supplies are relatively small (the age-old demand and supply ratio) so should roads or air benefit?

A government in a hurry…

One year on from taking office, all these announcements form part of the PM’s wider efforts to ensure the UK meets its legally-binding target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, while also driving forward a green recovery from the pandemic.

So far this year, this includes committing to consult on ending the sale of new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars by 2035 or earlier – it is under pressure from car manufacturers to bring this forward – launching the Transport Decarbonisation Plan to cut emissions across the sector; providing £1bn in the Budget to support the rollout of ultra-low emission vehicles in the UK via support for a super-fast charging network for electric vehicles and committing up to £100m of new funding for research to develop a brand new clean technology, Direct Air Capture.

It is a fact that over the past decade, the UK has cut carbon emissions by more than any similar developed country. In 2019, UK emissions were 42% lower than in 1990, while the economy over the same period grew by 72%.

You only need to look at places such as the hubs around the West Midlands, North East and Thames Valley to discover that there are many pioneering companies, genuinely at the leading edge of R&D in green and efficient transport.

To make all this happen, the government must pull the right policy levers at the right time

It’s only by creating a friendly environment for these technologies to move from the laboratory to the real world, that will sustain and turn those developments into making the UK the leading centre of ‘green’ R&D.

To make all this happen, the government must pull the right policy levers at the right time.

Risk-taking by the Treasury: An all-new approach

During COVID-19 we have seen that the Chancellor and the government have not been afraid to try new, untested methods, nor to hold back on accelerating other initiatives. And, unusually for politicians due to the obvious flack they receive for doing so, they have got the guts to swiftly change their strategy when it turns out to need revision.

It is right that central government should challenge local politicians – who are among green transport’s biggest enablers, but also blockers to change – and that government should respond to the wider public mood.

Importantly, as a nation we need to consider that many of the actions and habits of older people (by that, we mean over 30) are an anathema to those under 30. They have only ever grown up with ‘green issues’, the internet, and recycling being ‘normal’.

It is time that we all must throw reluctance to change aside, and accept that net-zero is not ‘just a thing’ but something that should render the old ways as socially unacceptable as, for example, smoking is now considered.

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