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A fossil fuel-free transport system - what does the Transport Decarbonisation Plan mean for infrastructure?

15 July 2021

As the Department for Transport releases its long-awaited report, ICE analyses the key points that could affect how people travel around the UK.

A fossil fuel-free transport system - what does the Transport Decarbonisation Plan mean for infrastructure?
Increasing active travel and public transport use will be critical to achieving the UK’s net zero target. Image credit: J Bewley/Sustrans

The transport sector may well be the toughest net-zero nut to crack. It accounts for the largest proportion of the UK’s emissions and, since 2010, transport emissions in the UK have actually increased while all other sectors have reduced their emissions.

The transition to zero-carbon vehicles and a modal shift to active travel and public transport are critical if the country is to deliver on its legally-binding 2050 net-zero target.

The publication of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) is therefore a significant step.

The TDP is noteworthy for another reason – it's heavily focused on reducing user carbon. This will inevitably impact on the public and mean tough choices have to be made, but it’s crucial that the benefits are communicated early on.

As the Office for Budget Responsibility outlined last week, early action on net zero, focused in the right areas, will mean a lower cost for the public in the long term.

Slide from Dr Jannik Giesekam’s 2020 Unwin Lecture on zero carbon and infrastructure.
Slide from Dr Jannik Giesekam’s 2020 Unwin Lecture on zero carbon and infrastructure.

What's in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan?

Perhaps the biggest headline on transport decarbonisation is one that was announced late last year – the phase-out of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030. This is expanded on in the TDP and its supporting documents, with a delivery plan outlining the necessary milestones, investments and policies needed to meet the target.

The TDP goes further by proposing to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) by 2035. HGVs account for 16% of total transport emissions, but make up just 5% of vehicle miles.

To back up these policies, the government is consulting on a proposed ‘zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate’.

This will require vehicle manufacturers to sell a gradually rising proportion of ZEVs and, if they miss the target, they will need to purchase credits from manufacturers that have exceeded the mandate. This creates competition between manufacturers, increases demand for credits and should decrease the cost of ZEVs.

The TDP also commits to invest £1.3 billion over the next four years to accelerate the rollout of electric vehicle (EV) chargepoints, with an EV infrastructure strategy to be published later this year.

In the domestic aviation sector, the government is consulting on a 2040 ‘Jet Zero’ target, as well as for all airport operations in England to be zero emission by 2040.

The Climate Change Committee has previously advised that there are no future scenarios in which the UK can meet its carbon reduction milestones while airport expansion presses ahead, so it appears the government is relying heavily on new fuels and technology to meet its ambition.

The government also published a Rail Environment Policy Statement, which sets the direction for achieving a fully zero emission rail network by 2050.

While the plans for rail are lighter in detail than road and aviation, this does include phasing out all diesel trains by 2040 and pressing ahead with electrification, with a pipeline of rail electrification schemes to be published soon.

The role of local leaders

In April, ICE hosted a Presidential Breakfast with Rachel Maclean MP, the minister with responsibility for transport decarbonisation. The discussion highlighted a real appetite for greening the transport system, particularly from local and sub-national leaders.

It's encouraging that the TDP emphasises the role local and sub-national leaders will have to play in transitioning transport to net zero.

This includes a raft of commitments, such as reforming the way local transport infrastructure is funded, improving strategic planning of local infrastructure projects, embedding transport decarbonisation principles into spatial planning – including re-planning urban areas to make them less car-dependent and create healthier environments – and providing guidance to local authorities on what transport decarbonisation interventions they can take.

With government setting the framework and providing capability support and funding, this will unleash local areas to plan and deliver net-zero transport systems that work for them and their communities.

ICE will soon publish an insight paper outlining the role of sub-national leadership in achieving net zero, so the government’s commitment to empower and support local areas is welcome.

What's still missing from the plan?

While active travel and public transport are prioritised before any other modes in the TDP, with the government wanting them to become the “natural first choice”, details on them are fairly light and contain no new policies or funding. The second Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, due out later this year, presents an opportunity for the government to outline its ambition further.

Another area missing is how transport systems can continue to be funded in the face of declining revenues.

While there is no explicit mention of national road user charging – something ICE has explored previously – the TDP states that government will need to ensure revenue from motoring taxes keeps pace with the shift to EVs to ensure infrastructure and public services are funded in the future. Fuel duty and Vehicle Excise Duty raise in the region of £30 billion every year, so a fair and equitable replacement on the transition to net zero is most certainly needed.

The impact of Covid-19 on public transport revenue and funding is another consideration.

The TDP acknowledges that public transport demand is unlikely to ever return to pre-pandemic levels, but it's clear that we need to have an urgent debate about how we fund it going forward. ICE’s recent discussion paperhas outlined the need to think differently about how we approach this issue, especially as public transport is so crucial to meeting net zero.

A systems view of net zero

The TDP is undoubtedly significant. But it is one piece of the net-zero systems puzzle. We know that decarbonising transport has implications for electricity demand and motoring tax revenue, which in turn has implications on consumer behaviour around modal shift.

The changes required for the net-zero transition will span many disciplines, sectors and government departments. There are countless interdependencies and major uncertainties – social, economic, environmental, political and technological – which must be accounted for.

To manage all these systemic issues, we need a full cross-sector net-zero strategy so that there is clarity on who is doing what, why and when.

  • David Hawkes, head of policy at ICE