This post is by Johann Beckford, policy adviser at Green Alliance.
Private cars and air travel get the overwhelming share of attention when it comes to the need to cut transport emissions. But when it comes to surface transport, vans are becoming an ever more present feature of our post-pandemic society and so their climate impact is a growing concern.
Between 1990 and 2019, van emissions increased from 12 to 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. In 2000, there were 2.3 million light goods vehicles registered in the UK, by 2020 that number had nearly doubled to 4.2 million, and it is likely to keep rising.
Home deliveries and collections, adding to the number of vehicles on our streets, are also a big source of air pollution and road safety concerns.
Pre-pandemic figures, however, suggest that most vans were mainly used to carry materials, tools or equipment. The services they provide are only going to become more important as our homes and infrastructure need updating. Clearly, any plan to reach net zero will require careful engagement with tradespeople and businesses to make sure they are part of the shift.
Electric vans need to catch up
Replacing polluting diesel vehicles with zero tailpipe emission alternatives will be a big step towards cutting climate impact and will improve air quality. But the electric van market is behind. In 2021, van drivers had less than half the number of models to choose from than their car driving counterparts.
There are, though, some encouraging signs. In June 2022, eight per cent of new van sales were electric, matching the government’s proposed Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate target for van sales in 2024, two years ahead of schedule. This shows the ZEV mandate urgently needs to be updated as the market is in danger of overtaking government targets, potentially acting as a ceiling on sales.
Vans are part of a wider system. Delivery is often the last stage of moving products around the country by road and rail. Heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) play the central role in the UK’s freight system, with domestic registered HGVs travelling 16.2 billion kilometres and lifting 1.27 billion tonnes of goods in 2020. By comparison, all of the UK’s ports handled 438.9 million tonnes of freight in 2020.
Cutting emissions from goods transportation means looking at the whole system. From the demand for a product of service that first puts a truck on the road to the last mile delivery that brings a product to your door, there are opportunities for more innovative thinking.
Using trains for freight is a good solution. According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), rail freight emits a quarter of the carbon per mile travelled compared to diesel HGVs on the road and rail freight will become greener as the network is increasingly electrified and the power system is cleaned up.
It is encouraging that the government has reaffirmed its pledge to phase out sales of lighter HGVs by 2035 and all HGVs by 2040 in its recently released Future of freight strategy, but the support for emerging technologies should happen now to make it happen. Several trials around electric and hydrogen HGVs are being funded by the Department for Transport and even overhead cables are being considered to power long distance electrified travel in so-called ‘electric roads’. Early indications suggest that the market is moving towards electrified HGVs with 30,000 in use around the world, while hydrogen trucks are still at the test stage. This chimes with Green Alliance’s favoured approach to prioritise hydrogen only where electrification is less viable.
There’s a bike revolution for last mile deliveries
For last mile deliveries, inspiration comes from the past. Cargo bikes have seen a resurgence during Covid-19, delivering food, drink, packages and medicines to people in cities across the country. And not just cities, in some cases, such as the North Yorkshire based e-cargo bike outfit Cargodale, even semi-rural and rural locations can be serviced by a combination of pedal and electrical power.
There are numerous advantages to removing vans from the last mile. The benefits of cleaner air and lower carbon emissions will be felt across the country, but in urban areas there is evidence that delivery times can be shortened as well. E-cargo bikes can use specialist cycling infrastructure to save travel time and they are easier to park in urban areas. But just how big will the impact of cargo bikes be? Will we see tradespeople ditching four wheels for two (or three)? Can e-cargo bikes really be a viable option for rural delivery, collection and travel?
Over the coming months, Green Alliance will be seeking to answer these and other questions around the future of delivery and freight in a net zero world.