Everyone wants progress, but no-one wants change

The sudden jump in air quality due to lockdown has been widely reported, although detailed figures seem harder to come by.

The big question is, how do we lock in these benefits?

More cleaner vehicles, and restrictions on vehicle use using clean air zones (CAZ) are two tactics, but getting people to change their attitudes is harder: Much tougher is getting people to change their actions.

Now that the benefits of clean air and significantly reduced traffic – especially traffic noise – have been enjoyed, what are people prepared to do to make this the ‘new normal’.

As recent post-lockdown events have shown, there is a minority who immediately revert to type. But what about the silent majority?

It’s had almost no publicity in the wider media  (no surprise as anything without the ‘C*VID’ word hasn’t had for 16 weeks) but the government has taken a first step with an attitudes survey quietly slipped out this week.

If you’ve not responded, it’s online at https://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/WF1I3C/ and is open until 31 August.

Please do respond, and encourage others around you too. With free-flow text allowed it’s much more than a ‘box selection’ survey. Indeed the government specifically asks what you think it should do, and gives ample space for written comments.

Modal shift has long been talked about, but is much harder to achieve than simply people making a free choice. Over a decade ago, the ‘sticks’ used in London – such as the Congestion Charge – along with significant public transport improvements showed what’s possible.

When it comes to vehicles, achieving the ‘Goldilocks’ moment – when everything is ‘just right’ – is much harder.

Yes, Euro 6d heavy-duty trucks will wash through the system relatively quickly due to HGVs’ shorter lifespan. Cars, vans and taxis are a trickier part. The high capital cost of buses and coaches, more than double that of a truck, dictate that they remain in service much longer.

It is here that thoughts turn to retrofitting and clean vehicle technology.

The holy grail of zero-emission battery-electric cars is already here for shorter journeys which, despite protestations, is what most people, most of the time, actually make.

Coupling with the fossil-fuel new car ban and battery-electric subsidies, this market is well looked after. There are also some grants for new and retro-fit buses. However the collapse in passenger transport usage encouraged by the government’s ‘don’t travel’ message means that operators’ investment funds are no longer available.

But what type of propulsion? It is the first law of thermodynamics that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only be converted from one to another.

Therefore, most forms of transport must store energy, in chemical or electrical form, and carry a power plant to convert this to kinetic energy. This plant, and the amount of energy that can be stored limits the vehicle’s range.

Only fixed electrification (trams, trolleybuses and trains) frees the vehicle from this constraint.

The big challenge for zero-emission transport is that nothing comes close to the amount of energy stored in liquid fossil fuels.

The only practical zero-carbon energy storage is batteries and hydrogen (at 350bar) with energy densities of 7% and 14% respectively of diesel.

There are many ways to skin a cat and ‘right-sizing’ power plants is the way forward, especially where urban operations are concerned, which is why London is leading the way with battery-electric buses.

For long-haul, while not zero-carbon, bio-gas remains a proven, very low carbon alternative that’s here now. It’s just that not many trucks or buses use it.

John Lewis’ commitment is, as you’d expect, very firm and in touch with its customers. Its announcement of a bio-methane fuelling station in Bracknell is proof positive of this resolve. And, it has revealed an ambition to stop using fossil fuels across its entire 4,800-strong vehicle fleet by 2030.

Parcel operators tell us that it is their customers – the firms they deliver for under contract – who are driving the move to zero-emission vehicles, with DPD leading the way.

The battle for zero-carbon is being led by consumers, for whom recycling has been an accepted part of their daily lives for more than a decade.

Cynics may say ‘whoa, hang on a minute’, but just look at the change in attitudes towards food sources (organic and so on) to see how powerful a shift in public opinion can be.

It’s much more than ‘virtue signalling’ – there is a low and zero-carbon opportunity that we all must take.

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