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Driving the change we need to achieve net-zero

4 min read

Meeting our legally binding net-zero target by 2050 requires an ambitious shift to low carbon transport solutions. The government must be open about the scale of change required, and how it will be paid for.

Transport accounts for the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions. Though there has been a slight decrease, emissions remain high. Larger reductions in other sectors – notably energy and business – mean the share of UK emissions from transport rose from 18 per cent in 1990 to 27 per cent in 2019, with surface transport accounting for 70 per cent of all transport emissions.

Inquiries held by the Transport Select Committee, and programmes such as the Centre for Policy Studies’ ‘Getting to Net Zero’, set out the challenges and potential solutions needed to tackle this.

If we are serious about achieving net-zero, we need to not only shift from combustion to electric, but from car to other transport modes

The government’s ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 will help. It is welcome that the government’s Net Zero Strategy commits to introduce a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, albeit disappointing it will not be introduced until 2024. Recommended by the Transport Committee in our report on ZEVs, a mandate requires manufacturers who sell a low proportion of electric vehicles to buy credits from those who produce the most. This has the potential to boost supply, drive down prices, and shift the current rollout cost from taxpayers to manufactures. This latter point is important. Currently, those on low incomes pay taxes that subsidise those on higher incomes who can afford the electric vehicle price.

The government must now set out how it will implement its charging infrastructure proposals, and how this will be paid for.

Yet if we are serious about achieving net-zero, we need to not only shift from combustion to electric, but from car to other transport modes. While electric is greener, only around 40 per cent of electricity comes from renewables. It is still a dirty enterprise taking a lot out of the system. This is where we can use price as a lever to reduce our carbon footprint. Take road pricing. This is being looked at by the Transport Committee, and has the potential to reduce emissions and be a model for others to replicate.

Currently, the key global example is London. Yet the congestion zone charges users the same price for driving one mile as those who drive across it for hours in a day. Innovation allows us to be more ambitious. New technology will let us not only charge for each mile driven, but vary that price according to factors such as time of day or vehicle weight. Through mobile apps, drivers could compare the price of travelling by car against the cost of alternative means, such as public transport.

This will nudge the public into new behaviours, helping reduce emissions. As we saw with the introduction of 5p plastic bags, pricing an item as a unit leads to consumers reducing units spent and, ultimately, overall consumption.

A smaller yet equally important task will be decarbonising our railways. The government’s phase-out of diesel-only trains by 2040 means electrification cannot wait. At present, 60 per cent of our trains are still powered this way, leaving a carbon footprint along 6,000 miles of track. Despite only 38 per cent of Britain’s railways being electrified, compared to 60 per cent in Germany, no major electrification schemes are under construction in England, meaning industry is losing the skills it needs, and has built up over recent years.

The Transport Committee has called on the government to commit to a 30-year rolling programme of electrification, as the most efficient way to decarbonise our railway. Yet at a time when the government has bailed-out the industry to the tune of £10bn, does the political will exist to commit to even greater spending in pursuit of decarbonisation?

The government has committed to an ambitious end-goal. What is needed now is a detailed timetable as to how this will be achieved, and a conversation about how it will be paid for.


Huw Merriman is the Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle and chair of the Transport Select Committee. 

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