Decarbonizing the UK transportation sector

Decarbonizing the UK transportation sector
Nov 2, 2021
4 MIN. READ

Walking, cycling, and electric vehicles (EV) are growing in popularity as alternatives to fossil fuel-powered transportation in the UK. As world leaders gather at COP26, the UK Government will present their plan to further boost support for these eco-friendly transportation options as part of a broader push to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050.

Despite the downward trend in GHG emissions each year, the UK plans are necessary to achieve the 2050 targets. Since transportation is the largest contributor to UK domestic GHG emissions (27% in 2019), reducing these emissions presents a significant change in the way we travel and transport goods. But it could also have benefits beyond addressing climate change, such as improved health and air quality across the country.

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Moving to add around a billion EVs in the world will increase the share of electricity usage from 1% to more than 40% by 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Achieving the goals of a decarbonization plan requires an understanding of the different challenges presented within the transportation sector, some of which are related to technology and infrastructure, others of which are related to policies and people’s behavior.

Technology and infrastructure

Advancing and adopting new technologies is crucial for decarbonizing the transport sector and shifting from high to low energy intensity transportation. EV battery technology is experiencing great improvements in range, size, and cost while the introduction of other technologies such as hydrogen and biofuels are still in the relatively early stages. Although there is still a long way to go to close the gap with fossil fuels, these technology advancements support and accelerate the much-needed change across the different transportation sectors.

Infrastructure development goes hand in hand with technology advancement. Despite the increase in the number of public charge points in the UK over the last five years, there is still huge uncertainty and a debate around building additional infrastructure before there are enough EVs on the road to warrant the new infrastructure. It’s a classic chicken and egg dilemma.

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To address this challenge, the UK's EV plan provides a range of funding for charging infrastructure—not only in public spaces, but also in residential buildings and workspaces. By 2023, the UK aims to have at least six high-powered, open access charge points (ranging from 150–350 kilowatt) at motorway service areas in England, with some larger sites having as many as 10–12. By 2035, the plan calls for around 6,000 high-powered charge points to be available across England’s motorways and major A-roads.

Policies and society

A strong policy framework can support the successful implementation of net zero plans and the decarbonization of the transportation sector. Such policies will ensure an equal and multi-vector mobilization of financial resources, energy, and technology investments, as well as strategic collaboration between government, industry, academic institutes, adequate employment services, and social protection measures. UK councils and local authorities have already started moving in this direction. Furthermore, a Ministerial-led external advisory board was formed in 2020 (the Net Zero Transport Board) to provide independent, objective, and impartial advice on transportation decarbonization to the Department for Transport.

Understanding society’s needs and behaviors is critical to reducing emissions. In fact, 62% of emissions reductions involve some form of behavior change. Our own research demonstrates how European governments can leverage behavioral science to encourage people, including youth, to take actions to address climate change. This approach can play a key role in helping to achieve the UK government’s transportation goals.

Lessons learned for other countries

The transportation sector in the UK is only a small part of a much larger decarbonization challenge facing countries around the world. GHG emissions from transportation represent approximately 24% of the total CO2 emissions in the world. According to the IRENA, almost three quarters of the global CO2 emissions from transportation come from road vehicles (passenger and freight), which highlights the need for new operating models to transform traditional transport services, as well as major investment to rapidly accelerate more efficient and cleaner technologies to reach net zero transport emissions.

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Decarbonization of the transportation sector is a priority for many governments. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development places sustainable transportation as one the main topics across several Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including SDG 3 on health (increased road safety), SDG 7 on energy, and SDG 11 on sustainable cities (access to transport and expanded public transport).

Road to decarbonizing the transport sector

Decarbonization of the transportation sector is a complex challenge that needs major investments to accelerate cleaner technologies. It will require a mix of emerging clean technologies such as EVs and charging infrastructure, renewable energy sources, and energy storage. Due to the typically high upfront capital investment requirements, the right policies and regulations will provide investors with some level of certainty, and confidence to invest in new projects.

These policy actions should be specific to each country's unique characteristics, demographics, and needs. Nevertheless, to incentivize and reduce the gaps within the transportation sector, there must be an understanding of the present and future user needs. This means having the right technologies and mechanisms to meet Paris Agreement goals and having a successful decarbonization action plan.

Meet the authors
  1. Fernanda Samman, Electric Vehicles & Sustainable Transport Consultant
  2. Paris Hadjiodysseos, Managing Consultant - Energy