This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
Date Published: 2 March 2023
In July 2021, the Government published its Transport Decarbonisation Plan which outlined the pathway for the transport sector to be net zero by 2050 in the UK. It reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to decarbonising all forms of transport including maritime, aviation, road and rail, and stated that this will primarily be achieved by a combination of modal shift and alternative decarbonisation technologies.
The Government has repeatedly stated its position as “technology neutral” regarding the decarbonisation fuel or technology chosen for each transport mode. We were told by witnesses that this has been a barrier to investment in decarbonisation technologies due to the financial risk posed to private companies who invest in infrastructure for a technology that may not be the eventual ‘winner’. The Government should change its policy to one of ‘targeted technology investment’, allowing it the flexibility to make strategic investments in new technologies that offer evidenced solutions to lowering emissions, and giving the private sector more confidence to invest in its own infrastructure.
The potential of sustainable fuels—biofuels and synthetic fuels—has been overlooked (intentionally?) in this debate. The key benefit of these fuels is their ‘drop-in’ capabilities, meaning they are usable in existing vehicles. They can be engineered over time to improve efficiency and reduce particulates and other emissions, while taking advantage of ever-more efficient engine technology. They can also be blended with fossil fuels until production ramps up sufficiently to replace them.
Various types of these fuels are already in production worldwide and have been used successfully in a variety of applications including motorsport, high-performance cars and an RAF test flight. The ability to provide existing private cars that will remain on the road for some time with drop-in replacement fuels from renewable sources seems a sensible and economically sound approach, making the best use of legacy assets. The current legislative framework, however, fails to capture the benefits of these fuels by focusing only on tailpipe emissions and not accounting for carbon savings elsewhere in the lifecycle.
The sidelining of sustainable fuels is particularly marked in the arena of private cars, where in contradiction to its stated policy of technology neutrality, the Government is currently succumbing to groupthink and putting all its eggs in one basket: battery EVs. Not everyone will be able to afford to replace their current car with an EV, nor will everyone easily be able to charge one at home. There are questions over the adequacy of infrastructure and the use of raw materials to produce the necessary batteries. An exclusive focus on battery electric vehicles risks failing to meet the UK’s climate goals.
The huge potential for sustainable fuels to provide a low-carbon option for conventional engines must be further explored. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions right now by using increasing quantities of drop-in sustainable fuels would enable us to address the existing fleet and minimise cost and carbon emissions through the use of existing infrastructure.
Direction, guidance and regulation from the Department for Transport in respect of sustainable fuels is urgently required. A mechanism is needed to recognise the carbon savings associated with sustainable fuels which would incentivise investment and drive down costs, allowing automotive companies to provide the solution by applying the right mix of technologies.
For cars and taxis, battery electric has already been chosen as the preferred decarbonisation technology. We also believe there is a case for many people right across the country in all areas, but particularly in rural and isolated communities, to continue to drive wholly diesel or petrol-powered cars, or hybrids (or EVs if they wish). Over time they will very likely account for a negligible proportion of transport emissions. The cost of introducing EV charging infrastructure is completely unrealistic and will require massive amounts of taxpayers’ money through government subsidy for electricity generation, infrastructure provision and storage, and basic raw materials for battery production in order to be anywhere near acceptable as an alternative to ICE or hybrid personal vehicles, delivery, farming or construction vehicles.
The biggest decarbonisation challenge for the road sector is Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs), which need significantly more power. In November 2021, the Government announced that the UK will become the first country in the world to commit to phasing out new, non-zero emission heavy goods vehicles weighing 26 tonnes and under by 2035, with all new HGVs sold in the UK to be zero emission by 2040. For lighter weight goods vehicles that are travelling shorter distances, battery electric appears to the most viable solution, but for heavier HGVs travelling long distances, there does not appear to be a single obvious solution. We recommend that the Government publish a long-term HGV decarbonisation strategy as a matter of priority.
The maritime sector presents a significant challenge to decarbonisation. It appears to be the furthest behind of the transport sectors in terms of technology readiness, the global nature of the shipping industry means international consensus on the chosen decarbonisation technology is required for alignment of infrastructure, and the longevity of vessels means that fossil fuel-powered ships built today will likely still be in operation in 2050. The UK Government should use its influence at the International Maritime Organization to ensure that, globally, the path forward for investors in alternative maritime fuels becomes more secure.
There will likely be significant remaining emissions in the aviation sector by 2050 due the limited decarbonisation options currently available. We were told that zero emission flight will mostly likely be achieved via hydrogen or battery electric. Both options, however, are currently only viable for short-haul routes and will likely remain so until after 2050.
Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are the most viable option for the immediate reduction of aviation emissions. In July 2022, the Government published its Jet Zero Strategy, which introduced a SAF mandate that will require at least 10 per cent of jet fuel to be made from sustainable sources by 2030. We consider that further measures are needed to stimulate uptake of SAF. We recommend that the Government should introduce a Contracts for Difference model to support the commercialisation of SAF and create price certainty to incentivise further investment.
Rail travel is a naturally low-carbon transport mode, but trains in the UK still heavily rely on diesel traction for their power. In 2018, the Government committed to phasing out all diesel-only trains by 2040, including freight trains. Electrification is currently the only decarbonisation technology that can deliver a full range of requirements including high-speed, long-distance passenger travel and freight haulage. To achieve its decarbonisation goals, the Government must electrify the network at a faster rate.
Electrification may not be viable on all routes as the long-term benefits may not justify the high investment cost and level of disruption caused by engineering works; in these cases battery electric and hydrogen may provide a solution, but neither are currently capable of delivering the power required by freight and high-speed train services because of their high energy demand. Biofuels may be the most viable option for decarbonising rail freight in the short and medium term. We reiterate a previous recommendation that the Department for Transport publish a long-term strategy for decarbonising the rail network, including a vision for what proportion of the future network will use electrification, battery and hydrogen, and a credible delivery plan.