Transport after the General Election: A conference report

Session 4 Decarbonisation

Wanted: a long-term vision and laser-like focus

A recurring theme of the final session, At the sharp end: Decarbonising our transport system, was the need for a vision, a long-term strategy, and consistent support from central government.

Chairing the session, Urban Transport Group director Jason Prince reminded delegates that in 2019, cars were responsible for 70% of transport carbon dioxide emissions, and that in 2021 transport was responsible for 26% of total UK carbon releases. So the sector faced significant challenges.

Cllr Louise Upton of Oxford City Council outlined what '"an ambitious and forward-looking district council can do".

Oxford had just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first park and ride in the UK. One of Oxford's park and ride sites now hosts Britain's largest electric vehicle charging hub with 42 charging points. This is coupled to the UK's largest battery, which draws power from the grid when renewable energy is plentiful and returns it to the grid at other times.

The city has a new fleet of electric buses; all hackney carriages will be required to be electric by 2026, and the council has been running trials of different kinds of charging technology for private vehicles, installed in bollards and lampposts on residential streets.

On rail, the council wants to reopen the Cowley branch line, which runs to the Oxford BMW plant, to passengers, with two new stations connecting to the city centre. It has pulled together £4m of funding to develop a full business case.

Oxford has successfully and without controversy introduced a zero-emission zone pilot in the city centre. Though it only covers only a few streets it required substantial engagement to talk to every business in the area and address any problems. By contrast, low traffic neighbourhoods, introduced quickly during Covid, had been controversial.

She said government ministers had wavered and backtracked in their support for measures such as this, and she had two asks.

"First you've got to communicate your vision. You need to say it's about giving you extra years of healthy life from better air quality and so on. Engage with public, be brave and put your vision out there. It's difficult for people to visualise – what am I going to do if I'm not in my car –and you've got to be very clear about how you can help them to do that.

"Second, fund the carrots properly, not just the sticks."

Hitachi Rail senior sales director Nick Hughes explained his organisation's plans for decarbonisation. Hitachi Rail is committed to completely eliminating carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and is aiming for the same target in its supply chain by 2050.
The company had three elements to its strategy: to drive modal shift (he reminded delegates that cars produce seven times the emissions of rail), to accelerate the decarbonisation of rail and to "decarbonise ourselves".

"From hydrogen to biofuels and batteries, we're investing in green technologies. We think they're crucial to achieving net zero by 2030," he said.

Hitachi Rail has already achieved a 12% reduction in "scope 1" and "scope 2" emissions. Scope 3 emissions – indirect emissions in the value chain of a company – typically account for 80% of a company's greenhouse gas output and are typically the hardest to measure. "For that reason we've formed a partnership with a company called Eco Vadis and we've created a carbon accounting engine that helps us to measure our carbon footprint," Mr Hughes said.

With TransPennine Express, Angel Trains and battery supplier Turntide Technologies, last week Hitachi Rail launched a trial replacing a diesel intercity train with one converted to 100% battery power, with potential to reduce emissions and costs by 30%.

The company had recently worked with the Railway Industry Association to produce a report "on what actions we think are necessary from the government to support decarbonisation of trains. The recommendations of that report set out a very clear ask of what we want the government to do in the next few years to deliver net zero by 2050".

The report calls for "a long-term strategy that delivers a low cost but high performance net zero railway, and we must provide a commitment towards continuing electrification and supporting the growth of the UK battery sector," he said.

Zemo Partnership executive director Claire Haigh pointed out: "Whatever the outcome of the election, the fundamental challenge of net zero will remain the same. Our dependence on fossil fuels is exacerbating the existential threat of climate change," she said.

She gave an impassioned critique of the watering down of climate change commitments. "The recent ruling by the High Court that the government's carbon budget delivery plan is unlawful sets out the scale of the challenge that will be facing the new government," she said.

Progress has stalled. Last week the National Infrastructure Commission said the net zero rollback had created uncertainty and was delaying progress.

"We need a completely different approach from our government," said Ms Haigh. "Net zero is the biggest growth opportunity of the 21st century, and the UK had a strong track record." But, having been a trailblazer, the UK was now at risk of being outpaced by competitors.

She had consulted Zemo Partnership members on their views. "The net zero rollbacks were widely seen as unhelpful. As Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford UK, puts it, 'Our business craves three things from government: ambition, commitment and consistency'. There is a strong feeling across our members that the UK now needs to double down on net zero."

Ms Haigh continued: "There is international competition for capital expenditure. And it's not just investment that's needed. We need a vision and a strategy, and we need to get on the front foot to influence international discussions and regulations. We need a laser-like focus on delivery," she continued.

Net zero could not be thought about in isolation: it must be considered alongside air pollution, roads policy, and whole vehicle life cycles.

And because local decision-makers will be making many of the key infrastructure decisions, local leaders must be given the resources to able to plan for net zero on an integrated long-term basis.

"Bringing all this all together is no small task," she concluded. "What we crucially need in the transition to net zero is a credible and detailed delivery road map."

Making his second appearance on the podium, former deputy ministry for climate change in the Welsh Labour government, Lee Waters MS, said there were "three critical elements" to decarbonisation: a vision, a plan, and a story.

"The key to vision is accepting transport has a role to play. That is not something the Treasury orthodoxy has conceded," he said. Transport had seen as "too difficult", he said. "I think that is fundamentally misguided."

The Committee on Climate Change had stressed the need to reduce emissions not just to meet the 2025 budget but to get on the right trajectory.

"So electric cars are not enough. That is not what the evidence tells us. You also need to have modal shift."

That required a plan and targets. Wales had set more modest targets for decarbonisation than Scotland, for example. "Targets have a role as long as they are underpinned by a modal plan, and that is the hard bit," he said. He added that the civil service had struggled with delivery. "Because delivery agents are fragmented you need to think about how you align those plans with all the delivery agents in the field."

Regarding a story, Mr Waters said: "My key point is that data and evidence will only take you so far. The nature of what we're trying to do here is about culture change. Culture change is difficult." He recalled that when first introduced, pelican crossings were vandalised, and the introduction of the breathalyser had sparked death threats.

"We have to accept we're not dealing with a normal rational policy issue. This is about people's feelings of identity, freedom, and belonging."
He continued: "My central story is we need to make the right thing to do the easiest thing to do."

A strong example was recycling, he said. Twenty years ago Wales had the lowest rate of recycling in Europe. Now it has the third best rate of recycling in the world. This had been brought about with a step-by-step approach, setting gradual targets and investing until recycling was accepted as normal.

On the Welsh national 20mph speed limit he said: "People have got used to driving at a slower pace – it feels normal."

But on rail the introduction of new trains had been delayed, which had affected the experience for passengers in the meantime. To encourage people out of cars the alternative needed to be in place.

Mr Waters concluded: "We need the will to follow through with this and the resilience. It's hard stuff. But the consequences of not doing it are even harder."

Session one: Priorities for the next UK Government

Session two: Rail Reform, Delivery and Funding

Session three: Devolution and Transport

Session four: At the sharp end: de-carbonising our transport system