An electric moment: could we be seeing the early shoots of much greener transport?

intext-electric-bus-blogThis post was first published in an essay collection called ‘Delivering net zero’ for think tank Bright Blue and WSP UK.

There is a pressing need to move fast in decarbonising our transport sector. Transport is the largest source of UK emissions, with cars alone contributing 15 per cent to the UK’s total carbon footprint, according to the Department of Transport. Cars and vans also produce more than a quarter of the UK’s air pollution, which costs lives and, in monetary terms, the World Health Organisation estimates it to cost as much as £54 million a year.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up profound challenges to the transport sector. In the last few months, demand for transport, including trains, buses, roads and aeroplanes has collapsed to unprecedented low levels. While it is difficult to predict the impact of Covid-19 on transport demand in the longer term, in the short term, airports, airlines and some vehicle manufacturers face bankruptcy without additional bailouts from the government.

Recent events have paved the way for radical change
Despite these challenges and the uncertainties, the sheer scale of the changes that have taken place in society over the last few months make radical pathways to transport decarbonisation possible. People have seen the effect that reducing car use has had on air, noise and light pollution. The government has shown courage in delivering huge public investment packages during the crisis, including by taking stakes in transport systems like the railways. What is important now is that it uses the new reality to accelerate a transition to a more sustainable system. The case for strong ambition on sustainable transport from the government has never been clearer.

So what needs to be done? First, there needs to be a dramatic overhaul of the national fleet, including a switch to zero emissions vehicles like electric vehicles (EVs). The UK has made some progress in accelerating a transition to EVs: there are 200,000 EVs on the road in the UK and the 2035 phase out date for petrol and diesel cars and vans is one of the most ambitious in the world.

But even so, the UK is falling behind other countries, particularly on the manufacture of EVs and their parts (such as batteries). Although vehicle manufacturing generates significant economic activity outside the south east, the automotive sector currently contributes much less to the UK than to other major economic sectors. This is because countries such as Germany have a significant lead in the manufacture of conventional vehicles. However, in 2019, a fifth of all electric vehicles sold in Europe were produced at the Nissan plant in Sunderland. A growing demand for low carbon vehicles worldwide means there is potential for the UK to capture a significant part of the global market by 2030, which could contribute as much as £95 billion to the UK economy.

New support to ramp up EVs       
But this requires a proper package of support for manufacturers. Green Alliance suggests a new ‘auto-industry retooling fund’, which helps existing car manufacturers build up the right skills and invest in new technologies to switch their production lines to purely electric models. It should also provide new investment to support the development of new supply chains for the manufacture of EVs, including building new gigafactories to manufacture EV batteries. This could be a major part of a stimulus package for car manufacturers post-Covid.

Alongside the support and investment for manufacturers, we need new regulation to help drive the transition to cleaner vehicles. California and eight other North American states have used a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) sales mandate, which requires a minimum proportion of their cumulative annual sales to be battery EVs, to encourage electric vehicle production. China adopted a similar approach alongside a robust credit trading mechanism, and now produces 45 per cent of all EVs globally. A UK ZEV mandate would ensure that manufacturers were able to meet the growing domestic demand for electric vehicles. Sales targets of 15 per cent by 2022, 45 per cent by 2025 and 85 per cent by 2030 will spur domestic manufacturing and competition, meet growing UK demand and guarantee a strong supply of electric vehicles for the European market.

Measures to stimulate demand for EVs are also important. These should include maintaining the current tax-related incentives for new EVs, but should also ensure that lower income households can benefit from the transition. Most low income households buy cars from the second-hand market. Fleet operators are major suppliers to this market, but less than three per cent of their purchases are electric. Therefore, accelerating EV sales in the fleet sector would ensure a readier supply for lower income households. Regulation can help to stimulate greater supply of EV models from manufacturers and faster uptake of EVs by fleet operators.

The chance to create safer, healthier options
Improving public transport is the other critical part of a deep decarbonisation strategy for transport. We will not be able to decarbonise transport without reducing demand for private car usage and increasing demand for public transport, particularly as low carbon public transit, like electric buses and hydrogen-powered trains, become more cost effective. Unlike many other low carbon transport programmes, public transport benefits lower income households as much as those with higher incomes.

Finally, the pandemic has seen cities all over the world turning roads into cycling and walking paths, to maximise the space that the public have to safely travel and exercise. This has shown how important active travel can be to the health and happiness of urban dwellers, and provides a strong case for continuing investment in the infrastructure needed to make walking and cycling attractive, convenient and easy to use for everyone living in cities across the UK.

In the long run – despite the great tragedy of the global pandemic, and the chaos it has caused – perhaps there is a way we can build our transport infrastructure back to be more resilient, safer and better for the planet. There are the shoots everywhere of a great green transition, and so much to be gained by nurturing them.

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