Brian Robinson | Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership

The Big Picture of Vehicle Decarbonisation

October 2020

US President John F Kennedy’s brother, Robert once said: “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”

I wonder what he would have said about the early 2020s? Mr Kennedy’s Chinese curse reference is highly questionable, but these are certainly times of danger and uncertainty in terms of the future of road transport and there are signs of creativity bursting out in different ways all over the place.

The backdrop is the climate emergency, of course, given added thrust by the imperative to clean up our cities of air pollution. Last year’s Net Zero commitment means that the UK’s decarbonisation trajectory is now set in law.

We’re expecting an announcement soon about the target date for ending the sale of cars powered (or solely powered) by the internal combustion engine. This is increasingly looking likely to be 2030 (though plug-in hybrids may give the ICE in cars a stay of execution).

The ICE phase-out announcement will form an important element of the Government’s overall Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP), promised before the end of the calendar year. The TDP will be central to the UK’s pitch for global leadership on decarbonisation that will find its focus in CoP26; the global climate change conference to be held in Glasgow, delayed until November next year.

As net zero-compatible technologies for cars and light-duty vehicles are now entering the market and their future incarnations are becoming increasingly clear, attention is turning rapidly to the challenge of decarbonising the rest of UK road transport.

Trucks and vans combined produce around 35% of UK road transport carbon dioxide emissions (and a high proportion of nitrogen dioxide, the main pollutant of current concern). Heavier vehicles with lengthy range requirements come into the hard-to-electrify category, though we are seeing progress towards electrification of some smaller vehicles requiring shorter range for (mostly) urban environments.

Of course, it’s not just about vehicle technologies and it’s not just about climate change; the wider sustainability challenges that face us in the freight sector can only be tackled by addressing the bigger picture. The Avoid: Shift: Improve framework can help thinking here, focussing first on those areas of wasteful or otherwise damaging freight demand, then shifting to lower carbon modes of transport and finally improving the performance of all those modes, including our road vehicles.

There isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ for this ‘improve’ element – at least not yet – so we’ll need to adopt a wide range of approaches. Solutions will include new vehicle and fuel technologies, new vehicle designs, materials, retrofit solutions, tyres and accessories.

At LowCVP we’ve started to map out the technologies and fuels relevant to a more sustainable future for transport refrigeration units, too.

I look forward to discussing all these issues with you at Cold Chain Live!

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