Climate change – let's gear up for a zero-carbon future

Change is an integral part of the transport industry - it's what drives us to do things differently. Over the past twenty years, I've seen governments come and go, consumer needs evolve and have witnessed unthinkable advances in technology; all demanded flexibility and innovation from my peers, and each time the industry has stepped up to the mark. We now face the biggest challenge in our history; tackling climate change. Once again we must strive to do things differently, and understand that a problem of this scale demands a passionate, evidence-led and coordinated response; from policymakers, civic leaders, businesses, consumers and yes, the transport industry.

Sub-national transport bodies are faced with a conundrum when it comes to enacting our moral, environmental duty. Yes, we're desperate to reduce carbon emissions, to banish the nitrous oxides that cut short thousands of lives each year, but as custodians of long-term strategic infrastructure investment, our schemes stretch over the next quarter of a century. With the pace of technological change ever accelerating, this means evaluating what we know now, but also leaving space for innovation, making plans flexible and ensuring environmental best practice is at the forefront of investment decisions across our roads, railways and airports.

Green railways

Work is being done in all areas of transport to understand the best path to our green future, but while progress is being made, questions remain. On our railways, electrification has long been touted as the way forward; electric trains produce less than half the carbon emissions of their diesel counterparts, remove pollution at the point of use, often in our towns and city centres, and more efficient breaking and acceleration reduce journey times.

Despite this, just forty two per cent of the UK's railways are electrified1, compared to sixty to seventy per cent in comparable European countries. Government's decision to cancel the electrification of the Midland Main Line north of Kettering in 2017 was a big blow to aspirations for an electrified network. Hopes of a rethink were buoyed this year with confirmation that electrification will now continue to Market Harborough, and electrification further north will be necessary if Midlands Connect's aspirations for conventional compatible services between Leicester and Leeds via the new HS2 East Midlands Hub station are to be realised.

New evidence of the benefits of electrification continue to emerge; the Railway Industry Association's findings2 that a ten-year rolling programme of works could cut costs by between thirty five and fifty per cent could cause policymakers to reconsider. We must go where the evidence leads us.

Great advances are also being made in hydrogen fuel cell technology, and it's heartening to hear that Abellio, recent awardee of the East Midlands Railway franchise from August 2019, is planning to trial hydrogen-powered trains on the network. Current fuel cell production methods do generate a great deal of carbon dioxide, so again, further advances must be made to ensure long-term viability.

Moving forward, it is unclear whether electrification, hydrogen powered trains, separately or in collaboration, or even other solutions altogether will power our green network. For us, this means continuing to open up capacity for more passenger journeys, more freight journeys, and liaising with franchises, industry bodies and experts to understand how our options are developing.

Sustainable road use

With all sales of new diesel and petrol cars to be banned by 2040, and the National Infrastructure Commission recently calling for all road and rail freight to decarbonise by 2050, it's obvious that the makeup of vehicles using our road network will hugely transform over the next two decades. Until then, and anticipating the use of older, emissions-generating vehicles beyond this date, the work of sub-national transport bodies in reducing congestion is especially important.

Idling traffic is catastrophic for pollution levels, and can produce up to twice as many exhaust emissions as an engine in motion. Reducing the risk of tailbacks means building resilience across the whole road network, which is why we're aiming to enhance strategic A roads that can provide a viable alternative for motorway traffic when incidents occur elsewhere.

The advent of electric vehicles is seen by many as a watershed moment in tackling climate change, and innovation by the likes of Nissan and Tesla is already prompting greater adoption by consumers. In the Midlands, the UK's Battery Industrialisation Centre is set to open in Coventry next year, with the region also acting as a testbed for Connected Autonomous Vehicles. As this innovation accelerates, we must make sure we learn lessons from elsewhere and in our case, leave room for strategically-placed charging infrastructure in our schemes. The Chinese city of Shenzhen recently became the first in the world to migrate the entirety of its bus and taxi fleet to electric motors, however, this momentous achievement was undermined by long queues at charging points as well as concerns over the environmental impact of how electricity was being generated and how old batteries were disposed of.

All of us in the world of transport must brace ourselves for the most intense and important period of change we have ever experienced in industry. Yes, innovation is happening now, we're learning more and gathering better intelligence, but if we're to truly combat climate change we must work in partnership to drive behavioural change, support new technology and retain the flexibility needed to make the most of this innovation. Where the evidence leads, we must follow – hesitation is not an option, let's speed towards our zero-carbon future.

Maria Machancoses is director of sub-national transport body Midlands Connect.