Decarbonisation - an act of reciprocity

Without the distractions that tend to make life hectic the recent lockdown has provided an opportunity for reflection and contemplation and a chance to gain a deeper, perhaps more insightful, perspective of the issues that confront us all. I used the occasion to spend some of the enforced confinement in expanding the range of my usual reading material. Amongst the many and various journals and books consumed the one that left the greatest impression was the runaway best-seller Braiding Sweetgrass by the Native American ecologist Mary Wall Kimmerer.

Within a highly personal narrative she effortless weaves plant science and indigenous knowledge, and enables the reader to gain an appreciation of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. It is not necessarily a book that one would have thought relevant to a transport professional. But it was that reciprocal aspect that resonated, both at an individual and societal level.
And it came to mind again at the end of July when Transport Scotland published the rather more prosaically entitled Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan. Now whilst I can't imagine that it, too, will become a best-seller I am nonetheless certain that it will have a profound, direct effect both for individuals and society. And at its heart is reciprocity.

Over time we have ripped open the earth to extract fossil fuels and we've used them in ways that we now realise have delivered harm. We've seen and are seeing the impact on human health and the personal and societal cost of subsequent illnesses. We've seen the harm to the planet manifested in dramatic changes to our climate and ecology. And we're looking at a long-term prognosis - if we don't act - that may be beyond the ability of future generations to arrest and reverse.

But by using the readily available resources of light, wind and water – so-called naturally sustainable resources - we can dampen the effects of climate change. We can improve our own health and the well-being of the planet. By taking these sustainable resources and using them, rather than carbon-dense fuels, to produce electricity we can still provide the energy necessary to deliver a functioning society. In short, decarbonisation – not using carbon - is an act of reciprocity.

Our Action Plan for Rail forms part of a suite of initiatives in Scotland that seek to address the challenges posed by carbon the use of which has begotten climate change. We already have world-leading legislation with net zero emissions targets of greenhouse gases by 2045 and in the transport sector – now the largest single contributor to greenhouse gases – we are implementing low emission zones within our major cities. We intend to phase out new petrol and diesel cars in Scotland by 2032 and decarbonise scheduled flights within Scotland by 2040 with the aim of creating the world's first zero emission aviation region by that date. We are also radically accelerating the deployment of zero emission vehicles within the bus sector as part of our comprehensive response. Indeed, taking action to address the ills of climate change and improve health and well-being are two of four strategic outcomes of our National Transport Strategy.

Our intentions, as set out in the Action Plan, align very much with the findings of the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce (RSSB July 2019). Accordingly, we intend to pursue cost-effective electrification, coupled with targeted battery and hydrogen technology where these provide a better or more appropriate solution.

Reducing the cost and impact of physical electrification will be key to the successful delivery of the Plan. Fortunately, there is acknowledgement, right across the rail sector, for the need for greater efficiency during design, development and delivery. The integration of planning and delivery is key to success. There are a host of variables - route, rolling stock, power supply, structures and service operations – which must be addressed by a multi-disciplinary team in a truly integrated manner to ensure a successful, efficient programme. The interplay between variables is complex and challenging. All of this activity requires robust budgetary oversight, ongoing monitoring and continual refinement. Fortunately, a detailed delivery programme, engaging the entire industry in Scotland – known as Team Scotland – in a collaborative approach, is being drawn together under the Programme Delivery Director. It is pleasing to note that progress is underway with design development work already started on a number of electrification schemes to connect and consolidate - efficiently, of course, - the electrification of lines in Scotland's central belt.

Having an Action Plan provides certainty of direction and allows key players to take steps that will stimulate innovation, create new and exciting employment and training opportunities, and help Scotland deliver a genuine sustainable economic recovery from this dispiriting health pandemic. As an example of that approach, Scottish Enterprise, Transport Scotland and others are developing an International Rail Cluster in Scotland. Initially, in the light of prevailing circumstances, this work will begin life as a digital project with a number of events bringing the industry, businesses and academia together online. The expectation is that, in time, post-pandemic, the momentum of a virtual gathering will translate into a physical cluster of businesses and research organisations to support and deliver a world class manufacturing capability in sustainable rail infrastructure and transport.

Our Action Plan is a charter of intent, a statement of action, a proclamation of opportunity and a call to arms. It will also deliver an act of reciprocity.

Frazer Henderson is Head of Rail Policy at Transport Scotland

This blog was published as part of the Decarbonising Transport series with Greener Transport Solutions