Transport is the largest contributor to UK domestic greenhouse gas emissions, contributing around 34% of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 . The UK Government has committed to achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In its 2020 consultation paper, The Department for Transport (DfT) set out six strategic priorities for the UK’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan to deliver a net zero transport system, one of which is to make the UK a hub for green transport technology and innovation. We believe this to be a worthwhile and achievable goal, but one with some challenges to overcome in our current climate:
Research and innovation support
Decarbonisation through research and innovation is at the centre of the UK Government’s industrial strategy . A combination of Government and Industry investment is driving initiatives across the UK such as the Future Transport Zones and a broad range of green technology projects covering areas from battery development to advanced heating and cooling systems . Continued Government participation and funding for these initiatives is necessary to ensure that progress does not stall and is made ever more important by the current Covid-19 situation, during which industry partners may be more risk averse and less inclined to invest in research and development.
It is also vital that the DfT continues to work closely with other departments such as the Departments for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), aligning research and innovation programmes and using commercial frameworks alongside innovation competitions where necessary to ensure that the areas of highest priority receive the attention and investment needed during the Covid recovery period.
From innovation to commercialisation
One of the most challenging areas is the ‘scale up’ of new products or services from a single innovation project to a commercial offer. This is in part due to the vast difference in expectations, definition and management of match-funded innovation competitions versus competitive procurement exercises or private sales to users. An assessment of how effective innovation funding has been in leading to new commercial offerings may reveal current blockers and future opportunities. A critical look at the approach of using capital funding may be needed to gauge whether this is adequate and realistic to achieve the outcomes the DfT is aiming for in decarbonising transport.
In addition to available funding, digital connectivity plays an integral role in the ability of the UK to decarbonise and innovate at scale. It’s worth stating that not everything needs to be digitally connected, we need to decarbonise what we have today as well as develop future solutions. However, reliable and fast connectivity is fundamental in enabling some of the innovations relating to green technology such as demand-responsive transport, mobility as a service offerings and micro-mobility. This is particularly challenging in rural and semi-rural environments, where private car usage may be the only currently viable mode of transport. Plans to improve connectivity (both digital and physical) to enable innovative solutions to transport decarbonisation should be combined with the place-based solutions approach proposed by DfT to drive green transport technology innovations.
Emerging mobility technologies
New forms of micro-mobility such as e-scooters have been given a large amount of support for country-wide trials and have the potential to reduce emissions by moving travellers to lower carbon transport options. However, introducing these modes of transport creates disruption in what is a well-defined and well understood transport system, requiring a safe systems approach to provide guidance on their safe implementation in combination with the current rollout of trials. This approach is similarly applicable to the re-purposing of streets.
Regarding the decarbonisation of road vehicles more generally, the current rollout of EV charging infrastructure is regionally or locally led, with differing levels of success nationally. A more strategic rollout approach led by DfT would ensure a more effective delivery, be that through strategic deployment planning, development of guidance for local authorities or identifying and supporting funding streams. This is a key step in achieving outcomes linked to the electrification of transport, as without suitable and sufficient charging infrastructure across the UK the current positive uptake of EVs will stall.
At WSP, we are committed to being carbon neutral by 2025 and to supporting our public and private sector clients deliver transformational projects across the UK, creating places that are less polluted, fairer, more inclusive and prosperous.
We look forward to helping DfT shape the second phase of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan.