Moonshots, cargo bikes, and 'oven ready' technology: how the DfT is decarbonising


The Department for Transport is due to release its transport decarbonisation plan by the end of the year, and it has a lot of ground to make up.

Transport remains the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, accounting for 34% in 2019, according to government figures. The large majority of those emissions are from road transport.

Moving to zero carbon is not easy and is made harder still by the Government's ambivalence towards making the hard modal decisions. As transport secretary Grant Shapps recently said: 'No one should be in doubt of our support for motorists.'

So how will the DfT decarbonise? Well, a cynic might say it is letting the car industry do it for them.

Electric Vehicles


The Government plans to ban the sale of new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars by 2035, and possibly even 2030. Naturally, this fits fairly neatly with what the vehicle manufacturers were planning.

According to Deloitte, the global electric vehicle (EV) market will reach 31.1 million by 2030.

Research from Deloitte Insights, cited by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Ltd (SMMT), states:

  • VW Group plans for 40% of global sales to EVs by 2030 and to have 70 different models by 2028
  • Daimler predicts 50% of sales will be EVs by 2030
  • Honda expects to have two-thirds of global sales EVs by 2030
  • BMW plans for EVs to be 50% of its cars sold in the European market
  • Mazda plans for all models to be EVs or hybrids by 2030
  • Toyota hopes to achieve a total of 5.5 million EV sales by 2025
  • Volvo expects by 2025 EVs will make up 50% of global sales
  • GM predicts one million global EV sales by 2025

The DfT's head of environment strategy, Bob Moran says: 'Some people have been critical about electric vehicles and the slow up-take, but they are here now. The volumes are coming.'

There is one slight caveat to this. David Wong, senior technology and innovation manager at the SMMT, points out: 'The vehicles are coming; whether they get allocated to the UK market is another question.

'Unit allocation to national markets is a competitive process and is heavily dependent on local market attractiveness - which is a function of local consumer demand, exchange rates and the potential imposition of tariffs.

'We need the lion's share of allocation if we are to bump up uptake figures.'

Putting aside Brexit's potential impact on tariffs and exchange rates, can the Government control consumer demand?

Norway has achieved enormous growth in electric vehicles by removing sales tax - plug-in vehicles accounted for around 55% of the market last year.

The Government has offered the Plugin Care Grant. Still, the SMMT suggests that if this were combined with a VAT exemption, it could lead to a sixfold (523%) increase in battery electric vehicle registrations by 2025.

With Treasury coffers drained, it is not an easy decision. Still, Mr Moran must be tempted to ask for a VAT release for businesses if nothing else.

'Half of the UK's commercial vehicles are under 18 tonnes, and I think they are ripe for battery electrification as battery costs drop and the performance and energy density increases as well,' he says.

He points out the heaviest vehicles on our roads 'are definitely the most challenging, but the competing technologies are thinning out'.

'We have hydrogen fuel cells, battery electric power trains and probably electric roads. But we do need to get these technologies onto our roads. We need to work with industry; we need to work with operators, local authorities, the energy sector and academia to work out what is the right solution for the UK.'

Hydrogen for the heavy stuff

Hydrogen is seen as the solution to decarbonise heavy lifting rather than mobility.

Mr Moran says: 'The case for batteries remains very, very strong but we are going to need hydrogen, so we can decarbonise those hard to reach places across the economy and some are in transport; the first hydrogen passenger plane took off recently, and we saw the first hydrogen train on mainline tracks.'

As Jonathan Murray, director of policy and operations at the Low Carbon Vehicles Partnership, points out: 'It's not just tailpipe, it is the whole-life emissions. One of the things we have to face with hydrogen is how you generate that hydrogen. It is a very energy-intensive process. That is an issue in carbon intensity and climate change and the sources of that energy.

'The vehicle manufacturers are focused on EVs, and that's where the solution lies for most of us. I don't think waiting for hydrogen fuel cell other than for heavy duty is the right thing to do.'

It seems hydrogen might be the plan for UK airlines as well, with reports that they could be commercially viable by 2030.

Mr Moran says: 'Aviation is always telling us they are the hardest to crack. We have a moonshot for that, and we are working to delivery jet zero commercial aircraft in the UK by 2030.'

Closer to earth, hydrogen could also have a role in road freight, because of the weight of batteries.

Prof John Read, general manager of technology at Shell, says: 'There are two big hopes for transportation and Shell is playing in both at the moment; one is electrification, and the other is hydrogen.

'One of the concerns we have is when we go down the route of electrification the energy density in the batteries is not high enough to really run heavy trucks. It's fine for cars. That equation doesn't work for trucks.

'You would have to have so many heavy batteries you would either have to increase the weight of the truck, which would damage the pavements enormously. Or you have to have a much lower payload, and that would increase costs for the consumer, neither of which is affordable.

'There is a view that heavy trucks will go hydrogen first until you get enough battery density. The other way of looking at electrification is doing what Siemens has done in Germany.'

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E-highways (pictured) use overhead charging cables for electric lorries and engineering giant Siemens and truck manufacturers including Scania, have indicated they can deliver the modified vehicles and have delivered numerous prototypes for demonstration trials around Europe.

According to a joint study by figures in some of the UK's top universities, most of the carbon dioxide emissions from road freight could be eliminated by the introduction of this plan.

There is plenty of 'oven-ready technology' out there Mr Moran says, 'and a lot comes from UK innovation, universities, R and D systems'.

'If we think about transport as a system, the movement of goods is really ripe for behaviour change and modal shift, making the best use of rail and domestic shipping, as well of course micromobility, e-cargo bikes,' says Mr Moran.

And of course, if all else fails we could always try walking and cycling.

Government figures from 2017 show the vast majority of journeys over a mile are made in a car or van but even for distances of one to two miles around 60% of journeys are made by motor vehicle.

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