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Queen’s Speech 2021 presents a significant domestic agenda
Queen’s Speech 2021 presents a significant domestic agenda

What can we expect from the Transport Decarbonisation Plan?

Words by:
February 16, 2021

The responsible Minister, Rachel Maclean MP, recently said the Plan will put transport on a path to delivering its contributions to carbon budgets and net zero by 2050. Expected to be published in the Spring, not only will it take a “holistic and cross-modal approach” to decarbonising the entire transport system, but it will also set out a “credible and ambitious” pathway to cut emissions.

Below we look at some of the main themes and challenges it will need to address.

Innovation and technology

As a core pillar of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, innovation is key to decarbonising transport. This is already happening; from large scale electric vehicle infrastructure funding and roll out, to the UK’s first Battery Industrialisation Centre as part of the Faraday Battery Challenge. As such, the Plan is likely to include continued funding and participation in these types of initiatives to ensure progress towards net zero is maintained. Covid-19 has meant many major investments in research, technology and development have stalled. This cannot persist if transport is to be decarbonised and so the Plan is set to offer incentives that will stimulate private investment.

Making the UK a hub for green transport technology and innovation is a strategic priority for the Department for Transport (DfT) and, arguably, the most important for full-scale decarbonisation. Covid-19 has seen the emergence of new forms of mobility solutions like e-scooters, for example, now in the process of being legalised on roads for the first time in the UK. However, questions remain over the extent to which they can fit seamlessly into an already well-established transport eco-system. For example, the evidence on the extent to which e-scooters are encouraging genuine modal shift is patchy, as is the argument they offer reduced emissions given their poor green manufacturing credentials, according to a recent study by North Carolina State University. These are exacerbated when e-scooters are vandalised or destroyed because of leaving them undocked on pavements.

Supporting the shift to electric

Other technologies like electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure are expected to feature heavily in the Plan. To date, roll out of this infrastructure has been patchy and either regionally or locally led, with the levels of success varying considerably. The Plan will need to set out much more strategically how increased roll out will happen, with strong leadership from the DfT to ensure there is sufficient provision ahead of expected demand.

Last year saw the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles brought forward from 2040 to 2030, and potentially even sooner according to Grant Shapps. However, the timing of the ban is not as important as the context in which it has been set. Affordability of electric vehicles and availability of its infrastructure is still a major issue. Recent funding commitments have helped businesses with the cost of installing rapid EV charging points and given consumers the confidence they need to purchase one. For example, the Rapid Charging Fund and the recently announced additional £20m for on-street charging.

However, there is pressure on the government to go further and faster and so it is likely the Plan will set out more details on how the EV charging money announced to date is to be spent exactly. Similarly, the Plan might also include new subsidies to help make EVs more affordable. In any case, ensuring consumers have a genuine choice is paramount and will necessarily involve making EVs a practical alternative to internal combustion engine vehicles through ease of use and cost. The new DfT consultation on the consumer experience at public EV charge points and the recent CMA market study in to the EV charging sector is a good indicator of how much the government is prioritising this area.

Reducing emission through modal-shift

The Plan is also likely to include a focus on changing people’s travel habits, reducing their overall miles travelled in privately-owned vehicles, for example, which emit more emissions than public transport or micro-mobility solutions. We can therefore expect a doubling down on active travel ambitions through the creation of even more safe cycling and walking infrastructure.

Public transport

Active travel will not decarbonise transport on its own. Beyond this, there will still be ambitions for a modal-shift back towards public transport. This must be affordable, accessible, and reliable, which, often, is not the case outside of London. The Plan will need to bring forward policy and fiscal measures to restore public confidence in public transport, alongside actively promoting and incentivising more sustainable forms of transport.

For example, in rail, the continued use of diesel train fleets has meant the network is losing its edge as a green mode of transport. To decarbonise the rail network by 2040, diesel trains must be removed to make way for new, innovative, zero-emissions fuel/propulsion systems. Network Rail’s interim plans propose significant expansion of overhead electrification of the rail network from 38% today to 90% by 2050. But this is yet to be formally backed and adopted by Ministers and would come with significant cost attached. There is likely to be an important role for alternative technologies such as hydrogen and battery electric trains. However, with the industry currently in flux, undergoing structural changes in light of Covid-19 and in anticipation of the Williams Review, industry will be keen to see a clear plan that provides certainty and incentivises innovation.

Existing electrification programmes should be expedited, and more support given to the introduction of zero-emission technology such as hydrogen fuel cell trains and battery electric trains to stimulate the market for alternatives to diesel trains and make the UK a leading manufacturer, particularly now we have left the EU.

As the Minister says, the Plan will be holistic and cross-modal, meaning its scope will likely be vast. The Plan will lay down a marker and signal only the start of the transport decarbonisation process, not the end.

As such, though the window of opportunity to influence the Plan itself is fast running out, there will be several other opportunities to influence its implementation through additional consultations or working groups that are set up.

WA is in a unique position to help organisations make sense of the Plan and make their case to government for proposals that help accelerate transport decarbonisation. For further information or to arrange a call, please contact:

Marc Woolfson, Partner and Head of Public Affairs: MarcWoolfson@wacomms.co.uk.

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