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The UK transport sector’s journey to zero carbon emissions

30th Aug 2019

This summer, Theresa May set down in UK law a legal commitment for the UK to be at net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050. It may seem like a lifetime away to some, but a significant overhaul of a wide range of sectors will be required in order to meet this target – here we will consider one of the major carbon contributors – the transport sector.

The government’s latest provisional statistics estimate that a third of all carbon dioxide emissions during 2018 were from the national transport sector (i.e. excluding transport in the form of international aviation and shipping), and that the number of vehicle miles being driven on UK roads each year is still on an upwards trajectory. As such, the transport sector is in pole position for action to combat and reduce our emissions.

Last week, the government’s Science and Technology Select Committee published the results of their investigation into how the UK might be able to achieve this target. The report notes, for example, that the average scrappage age of cars has been rising for the last 10 years and is currently at an average of 14 years old. As such, the report has identified that the government’s 2040 target for banning the sale of new “conventional” combustion engine vehicles should be brought forwards to at least 2035 and that the scope of this ban should explicitly include hybrid vehicles, which while including combustion engines may not be considered to be “conventional” combustion engine vehicles under some definitions.

If we are to meet these targets then the clock is ticking and the life of new plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) may well be cut short. This in turn further increases the pressure for an acceleration in the pace of charging infrastructure installation on streets, motorways and properties as well as the development of new rapid charging technologies to make these chargepoints practical for widespread use.

However, the report recommends that the government should not place all their eggs in one basket and instead that R&D investment and the uptake of multiple technologies should be encouraged, with hydrogen fuel cell technology being one of the main alternatives to battery electrification. In particular, hydrogen fuel cell technology avoids the necessity to mass produce large batteries, the manufacture of which requires the extraction of relatively rare resources such lithium and cobalt and the associated environmental impact.

As set out in one of our previous blogs here, patent filing statistics suggest that the level of R&D into hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technologies has stayed relatively consistent over the last 10 years at a level far below that for battery electric vehicles. It will be interesting to see if the government is able to introduce policies and incentives to drive up this level of research into hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and the associated hydrogen supply and storage technologies. This will be particularly important for heavy good vehicles and long distance freight where the requirements for high power densities and short refuelling / charging times currently appear to favour hydrogen fuel cell technologies over battery electrification.

In a warning bell to vehicle manufacturers, the report states that “long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation” and recommends that the government commit to promoting and improving low-emission public transport and shared vehicle usership instead of private vehicle ownership. As self-driving vehicles become more viable, through investment in technologies such as LIDAR, we may even see hire cars being dispatched to pick you up on request. We look forward to seeing how the technology rises to meet these challenges and provide a greener future for all.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it

Jon West
Senior Associate
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Would you like to know more? You can talk to Jon West who will be able to help. Call +44 (0)20 7242 0901


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