UK's strategy for decarbonising ground transportation on its path to net zero

27 June 2023

UK's strategy for decarbonising ground transportation on its path to net zero

Reported by Megan Groom, CSaP Policy Intern (Sep - Dec 2022)

A panel discussion chaired by Emily Farnworth, Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement, University of Cambridge, aimed to bring clarity on near-term emissions reductions and find consensus on where effort should be focused, covering political, technological, and infrastructural perspectives.

As a part of CSaP's Annual Conference 2023, attendees gathered for the panel discussion on the decarbonisation of ground transport. The chair was joined by Richard Bruce, Director of Transport Decarbonisation, Department for Transport; Professor David Cebon, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Cambridge; and Dr Jane Dennett-Thorpe, Deputy Director Net Zero Strategy, Ofgem.

The panel members started the discussion by highlighting the current progress and the most pressing questions in their sectors. Professor Cebon and Mr Bruce both agreed that efforts are being focused to ‘electrify everything on wheels’, with road freight being the greatest challenge. On the other hand, Dr Dennett-Thorpe described three core interests for the UK energy regulator, Ofgem: ensuring the infrastructure and systems integration as well as ensuring consumers are protected and able to participate equitably in this transition. The panel members agreed that there needed to be proactive intervention to ensure the right infrastructure is in the right place, allowing for widespread uptake of electrification.

Mr Bruce continued the discussion by stating that the electrification of vehicles is the cornerstone of the decarbonisation plan and 90% of domestic transport emissions are from travel on roads. Highlighting the Department for Transport’s plan to decarbonise the whole of the UK’s transport sector, published in 2021, Mr Bruce described it as one of the most ambitious globally by pointing out to current policies of investment in charging infrastructure and the phase-out of internal combustion engines.

Mr Bruce then started talking about challenges and drew attention to the need for better public charging infrastructure, on strategic road networks- motorways- and local-on street charging. He informed the delegates that it is currently prohibited to run a cable across a public pavement to charge a battery electric vehicle (BEV), so those without private parking rely on the current supply of public charging points, which although rapidly growing is still relatively scarce. Mr Bruce also emphasised that public charging should be inclusively designed and accessible regardless of location or income.

Expanding on her earlier point on systems integration, Dr Dennett-Thorpe said that ensuring the readiness of our energy networks for the surge in BEVs is a priority. Arguing that the surge in electricity demand, potentially by 20-30%, should be seen as an opportunity, Dr Dennett-Thorpe stated that the development of appropriate tariffs can encourage charging during periods of lower demand and increase overall system efficiency. She also argued that using overnight charging as the default setting on chargers is an alternative to increase efficacy and fairness. Last but not least, Dr Dennett-Thorpe shared her belief in the electrification of vehicles is good news for the wider energy transition, and that fairness can be maintained.

Furthermore, Professor Cebon continued the discussion by expressing that freight transport, especially long-haul, presents unique challenges. Arguing that long-haul vehicles have less opportunity for reciprocity of charge and discharge to the grid, Professor Cebon discussed that logistics and engineering need to work together to ensure infrastructure is located appropriately. He then talked about the potential solutions: including large charging points at warehouses and installing overhead contact lines on motorways. Professor Cebon further argued that while both solutions may initially require to incur large costs, these connections are crucial for our low-carbon future. Moreover, Professor Cebon highlighted the fact that technology such as automation and AI will play an unpredictable but significant role in the freight industry’s future and transition.

At the end of the session, the panel members agreed that there is an urgent need for battery recycling as well as supply chain assurance for transformers and batteries. They all agreed that although road decarbonisation and electrification are well underway, there is a need for better infrastructure for long haul trucking and for those without access to private BEV charging. The panel members also agreed that learnings from decarbonising a sector that contributes almost a third to territorial carbon dioxide emissions can be used to better address harder-to-decarbonise sectors like aviation and shipping in the future.

You can listen to the session recording here: