HomeLow carbon futureHas a greener future for freight been lost in transit?

Has a greener future for freight been lost in transit?

This post is by Ralph Smyth, electric motorways project lead at Possible.

With empty shelves and diesel close to £2 a litre, freight is ever more frequently in the news. But, as the logistics sector lurches from crisis to crisis, can it aim for a greener future, while keeping shop shelves stocked and prices down?

The government has just published the UK’s first long term freight plan. The future of freight seeks to show how freight can become more resilient, “valued by society” and decarbonised by 2050, while keeping costs low. It sees the missing link as systematic thinking, calling for a “cross-modal” approach. This means joining up not just all forms of transport to move a product from a factory to your home, but also the warehousing and renewable energy needed along the way.

Road freight is responsible for five per cent of UK carbon emissions, and this has barely changed since 1990, so a new vision is needed. Although welcoming its publication, the National Infrastructure Commission has said the government’s plan is “light on detail about securing the further investment that might be needed…to reach zero emissions by 2050”. To be credible, it needs to set out financial incentives and new ways of working alongside new and upgraded infrastructure.

A new target is a chance to shift freight to rail
Perhaps the most popular solution amongst the public and NGOs is modal shift: moving freight onto rail improves noise and air quality, road safety and congestion as well as helping the climate. Last year’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan appeared to mark a major change, with ministers promising fewer cars and to shift freight from road and air to rail and water.

A year later, the government claims it is still “fully committed [to] exciting opportunities” for rail. It will shortly consult on a rail freight target, a big chance to make logistics more reliable and cleaner. But this should be backed up by fiscal reform and investment. Rail freight pays its full costs through track access charges, while road freight pays only a minimal contribution, as fuel duty has been frozen and cut and the HGV levy has been suspended.

The picture is no better for infrastructure funding: although a multi-modal National Freight Network is proposed, “affordability…within existing investment programmes” will dictate what can be done. In other words, the UK’s largest ever roads programme will overshadow a “constrained fiscal environment” for rail.

Greener road freight needs to be cheaper than diesel
Even if we could double the amount of freight carried on rail by 2030, which is the EU’s level of ambition, most would still travel by road. This makes it even more important to cut carbon emissions from HGVs fast. Long distances, heavy loads, low margins and operational requirements make that challenging. While the average car is parked up 96 per cent of the time, providing plenty of time to recharge, “drop and swap” lorries are driven most of the time. As with shifting modes, the changes require new infrastructure for charging, and the greener choice has to be cheaper than diesel. Without this, industry won’t have the confidence to change.

By setting 2040 as the date by which new diesel HGVs will be banned, the government claims the UK will be “the fastest G7 country to decarbonise heavy goods vehicles”. But, Germany wants a third of lorry mileage to be zero emission by 2030. This is not simply a more ambitious target: Germany’s funding for a fast roll-out of electric roads and rapid chargers, combined with road tolls that encourage change through a new EU-wide 50 per cent discount for zero emission HGVs, prove it means business.

Since setting the 2040 target, the Department for Transport has announced a consultation on reforming the UK’s HGV levy. But this offers no discount for e-HGVs and doesn’t level the playing field with rail charges, so it fails to provide incentives for real change.

The freight industry has a people challenge
For all the talk of technology and business models, perhaps the biggest challenge will be people. The shortage of lorry drivers is well known, but the fact that half are planning to retire by 2027 is less so. The median age of drivers is 55, 99 per cent of them are white and a similar proportion are male, so it’s no surprise the sector struggles to appeal to new entrants. Industry bodies have a Generation Logistics campaign but the Industry Freight Council admits that “PR alone cannot remedy the substantive issues”. The lack of decent facilities for drivers is scandalous, with the Transport Committee recently setting the sector an ultimatum to improve.

To be futureproof, these facilities should provide recharging facilities too. The trouble is that planning applications for HGV facilities can ignite strident opposition. The government’s housebuilding agenda promotes good design and the integration of wider community benefits. The logistics sector could learn a lesson or two from it

Although a positive step, The future of freight lacks timelines to deliver better outcomes. It sits uneasily with the Transport Committee’s conclusion that “[l]ittle to no improvement has been made on a whole range of important issues. The Government must force the pace and end years of industry inertia.”

Without wider engagement, it is also unlikely to deliver for workers, nearby communities or the natural environment.  What happens to the freight sector is relevant to 2030 targets for resource efficiency, alongside those for nature recovery, clean air and carbon reduction.  Indeed, a circular economy, needed to cut carbon in other sectors, requires new depots, working practices and business models, over and above cutting the carbon emissions of HGVs. Unfortunately, unless these different goals are joined up, as well as different forms of transport, the vision for a greener haulage sector risks being lost in transit.


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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