The UK government published the long-awaited and much-delayed Transport Decarbonisation Plan on 14 July (see press release). This sets out the government’s “greenprint” to decarbonise all modes of domestic transport by 2050 (road, rail and aviation), with detail set out in detailed consultations.

The government has also published a 2035 Delivery Plan, which brings together all of the measures for decarbonising cars and vans from across government, into a single document. It outlines the key timelines, milestones and how progress towards the commitment to deliver mass ownership of zero emission cars and vans will be monitored.

Transport is the largest contributor to UK greenhouse gas emissions, with road transport alone accounting for almost a quarter of the UK’s total emissions in 2019.

Key pledges

Vehicles

  • The government will phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) by 2040.
  • It is consulting on a 2035 phase out date for vehicles weighing from 3.5 to 26 tonnes and 2040 for vehicles weighing more than 26 tonnes – “or earlier if a faster transition seems feasible”.
  • See the 2035 Delivery Plan for more detail and the following consultations here and here.
  • The government had already announced last year its intention to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2030 (with new hybrids allowed to be sold until 2035).
  • The government has published its response to the electric vehicle smart charging consultation, committing to laying legislation later this year to ensure that all new private EV charge-points meet smart charging standards.
  • The government is bringing forward the target date for the whole central government fleet of 40,000 cars and vans to be zero emission from 2030 to 2027.

Aviation

  • The government is consulting on a Jet Zero strategy, which will set out the steps to reach net zero aviation emissions by 2050.
  • It will consult on a target for UK domestic aviation to reach net zero by 2040 and on a target for decarbonising emissions from airport operations in England by 2040.
  • However, it does not look like the government plans to stop airport expansion or limit growth in passenger numbers, as recommended by the government’s climate advisers the Committee on Climate Change.

Rail

  • The government has pledged to create a net zero rail network by 2050 and remove all diesel-only trains (passenger and freight) from the network by 2040.
  • See here for more details.

Maritime

  • The government will “plot a course” to net zero for the UK domestic maritime sector, with indicative targets from 2030 and net zero “as early as is feasible”.
  • It will also consult on the potential for a phase out date for the sale of new non-zero emission domestic vessels.

Hydrogen

  • The government will publish an overarching Hydrogen Strategy in summer 2021, which will focus on the increased production of hydrogen and use across the economy, including for transport.

Betting big on technological advances that are still at a very early stage

According to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps: “It’s not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing the same things differently. We will still fly on holiday, but in more efficient aircraft, using sustainable fuel. We will still drive, but increasingly in zero emission cars.

Reactions to the announcements have been mixed. Although the logistics sector and others have welcomed the announcements, some are concerned that the government’s plans rely too heavily on technological advances that are not yet available on a commercial scale (e.g. in terms of electric batteries, EV charging infrastructure, new transport fuels and aviation and shipping design):

  • Road Haulage Association: “These alternative HGVs don’t yet exist, we don’t know when they will and it’s not clear what any transition will look like. So this is a blue skies aspiration ahead of real life reality. For many haulage companies there are fears around cost of new vehicles and a collapse in resale value of existing lorries.”
  • Greenpeace: “Getting there through technological advances alone is a very big bet on very long odds…we need a mechanism to achieve those same emissions cuts if the advances don’t materialise and that mechanism can’t be offsetting.”

How is the UK going to deliver on these pledges?

One of the key questions on everyone’s mind is who and how are we going to pay for all this? And is the Treasury really willing to provide the additional public funding that is going to be required to deliver on these “world-leading” pledges?

If you give the private sector a “greenprint” for where we need to be in 2035, 2040 and 2050 - is that really enough to convince investors and corporates to reallocate vast amounts of private capital into high-risk emerging technologies? As we have seen with the sustainable finance market, relying on markets to auto-correct is a high stake gamble if not backed by sufficient public expenditure. Policy “greenprints” on their own will only get you so far.

The government also appears to have made a U-turn on its National Networks National Policy Statement (NPS). It had been taken to court by the Transport Action Network (TAN), which claims that the government’s £27.4bn road building plan is not aligned with the UK's 2050 net-zero commitment (see here). However, the government in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan has now committed to review the NPS, although it hasn’t said by when. The NPS was written in 2014 – before the government's legal commitment to net zero and the 10 Point Plan. The revised NPS will also need to reflect the new policies outlined in Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

No coincidence

The Transport Decarbonisation Plan includes a liberal smattering of “world-leading” pledges.

However, we don’t think it’s a coincidence that the government decided to publish the much-delayed Transport Decarbonisation Plan on the same day the European Commission published its “Fit for 55” package of climate proposals, which includes proposals for stricter CO2 emissions standards for new vehicles and would phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2035.

With the UK preparing to host the global climate summit COP26 in November, the government is bound to be wary of any perception that it is being overtaken or upstaged on climate leadership.

In the meantime, we are still waiting for the UK government to publish the Heat & Buildings Strategy and the (much-needed) overarching Net Zero Strategy covering all sectors.