Electrification Is Not Enough: Decarbonizing Transport Requires a Systems Approach

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Bus in london

Lloyd Alter would be so proud.

Recently, I wrote about the fact that the UK decarbonization rate had slowed, and I suggested that because the low hanging fruit of coal had now mostly been dealt with, the government would have to look to other sectors to regain momentum. I also argued, however, that there was silver lining in this news because the already greener grid meant that coming electrification of road vehicles would pay double dividend.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been too hasty though.

A new report from Aldersgate Group argues that in order to deliver the kind of deep decarbonization necessary to meet climate goals, the country is going to have to think well beyond switching out powertrains from fossil fuels to electric, and instead start thinking about transportation from a (gasp!) systemic perspective.

Here, according to the report, are the main necessary pieces of the puzzle:

1. Establish an integrated road and rail strategy, including shifting more road freight onto the UK rail network and developing a national bus strategy.

2. Devolve long-term funding and key powers to local authorities, allowing them to cut emissions from short journeys by coordinating planning and transport strategies. Surprise, surprise, bikes and walking will play a big part in this.

3. Improve local air quality by moving the most polluting journeys outside of urban areas, including through supporting the development of Urban Consolidation Centres (UCCs) to reduce inner-city freight traffic.

4. Grow the UK’s global manufacturing base for Low and Zero Emission Vehicles, by setting rapidly tightening CO2 emission standards for vehicles after the UK leaves the EU and guaranteeing subsidies until cost parity is achieved.

5. Provide targeted innovation support to complex parts of the transport sector where zero emission technologies are not yet deployable at scale, such as long distance journeys and Heavy Commercial Vehicles (HCVs).

6. Use measures announced under the Resources and Waste Strategy to drive greater resource efficiency across the UK transport system.

Here's how Nick Molho, Executive Director of Aldersgate Group, pitched the new report:

“With emissions flatlining for several years now, government needs to fundamentally rethink its transport policy and work across departments to deliver the modern and ultra-low emission transport system the UK needs. This means taking an integrated view of the whole transport system to ensure that new transport infrastructure projects deliver the best environmental and economic outcomes, empowering local authorities to develop low-carbon transport systems, incentivising greater resource efficiency across the automotive industry and targeting innovation support to technologies that can help cut emissions in difficult areas such as heavy commercial vehicles, long-distance journeys and rail.”

It's not exactly phasing out cars in ten years. But it's also not relying on Elon Musk to save us. I think they're on the right track.