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The road to transport decarbonisation and the legacy it will leave

Simeon Butterworth, Transport Director | WSP

4 min read Partner content

Much attention is given to the nationwide transition to electric vehicles (EVs) due to its important position within the Government’s Net Zero Strategy. Some progress has been made; the UK Climate Change Committee’s most recent progress report found that purchases of EVs more than doubled between 2020 and 2021. However, we are currently forecast to only reach 36% of private vehicles being EV by 2030 when the Government ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles commences. There are still barriers to overcome with a lack of public charging infrastructure a key concern for would be EV adopters, particularly those without access to off-street parking. Despite this, the pace of change across the UK is encouraging.

The Government’s recent announcement of a new Local Electric Vehicle Infrastructure fund is a welcome step in the right direction. However, it is clear that collegiate partnerships between private and public sector organisations are required to deliver comprehensive EV infrastructure and WSP is working with a number of transport authorities across the country to bring their ambitious plans into fruition

However, while electrification of road transport is undoubtedly important in the race to net zero, it’s not the silver bullet. When it comes to transport and infrastructure decarbonisation, it is one piece of a much bigger picture.

Politicians at all levels of Government must show leadership and work with communities on the behavioural changes needed to reduce overall vehicle use which will be essential to achieve the UK’s legally binding Carbon Budgets, while also supporting wider policy agendas including public health, clean air, and levelling up. Ultimately, decarbonisation should not be viewed as a burden for policymakers but a master key fit for many locks.

Local empowerment

Successful decarbonisation requires the Government’s Net Zero Strategy to be targeted and informed. This must in turn be complemented by collaborative public and private sector partnerships. If we are to reap the many benefits of decarbonisation, more funding should be made available to ambitious local authorities to act in the interests of their local communities, not just on EV charging but also delivering sustainable transport networks. The design and construction of this transformation must consider whole life carbon and be driven by the principles of PAS2080 – a framework which sets the global standard for managing infrastructure carbon by looking at the whole value chain and geared towards more intelligent, design, construction and use. Further, Carbon Management Plans must be utilised to embed innovative, low-carbon practices and materials as used on major projects such as HS2 and make this business-as-usual.

Recent capital funding programmes have shown sustainable transport investments can quickly deliver these transformations. WSP has supported authorities in West Yorkshire through programmes such as Connecting Leeds and Transforming Cities Fund. Residents of West Yorkshire now benefit from reduced traffic and better bus, walking and cycling facilities in Leeds City Centre, faster bus journey times and a new, solar-powered Park & Ride served by a fleet of zero emission electric buses.

To truly empower local authorities, we should not shy away from the encouragement of progressive road user charging policies which allow generated revenues to be retained locally and reinvested in the necessary infrastructure and behavioural change programmes to support the levels of modal shift required in the 2020’s. Waiting for the impact of the 2030 Government ban on the sale of petrol and diesel will not allow local authorities to decarbonise their transport systems in line with the legally binding Carbon Budgets.

However, a ‘one size fits all’ approach has to be avoided. We need approaches that are both equitable and reflective of the needs of different communities, their transport networks and economies. The Transport Select Committee made a recommendation along these lines earlier this year which merits careful consideration at this critical juncture.

Above all, an upfront conversation is needed with the public. The behavioural change and modal shift we need will only occur if people buy into this journey; we need to work together to build the narrative about why this is so important and why now. If a sensible proportion of revenues are retained locally, road user pricing is less likely to be perceived as a stealth tax; but more as a progressive policy to support multiple policy agendas and avoid the more heavy-handed interventions that would be required further down the line if we don’t act now.

Ultimately, the road to decarbonisation is bigger than electrification. A significant step change from business as usual is required to plug the gap between where EVs will take us and where we need to be. We all need to be smarter about how we travel, and this shouldn’t be seen as a burden but an opportunity, utilising innovative solutions at the forefront of technology and resulting in a greater sense of community. Reducing the carbon impact of the way we travel and the infrastructure we need to do this is not a choice, it is a necessity, and we need to progress that journey now.





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