Are trends electric?

Gloria Esposito looks at how the UK’s road transport could meet net-zero aspirations, via both electric vehicles and sustainable fuels

The road transport sector is responsible for 25% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and this is on upward trajectory. The government’s Road to Zero Strategy makes electric vehicles (EVs) a focal point for decarbonising these emissions. Presently, 4% of new car sales are zero-emission models, covering plug-in hybrid and battery electric technologies. The government and the Climate Change Committee say this must reach 50-70% of new sales by 2030 – meaning a 30% increase in new EV sales each year is required. A combination of carrots and sticks will be needed to accelerate take-up, such as Zero Emission Zones and a ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035. While industry experts predict EVs will reach price parity with fossil fuel counterparts by 2025, government fiscal incentives will need to continue for some time to make them affordable. Innovative fiscal policy will be required to accelerate EV demand while addressing loss of fuel duty. Carbon pricing should be a candidate, potentially aligning the cost of fuel and energy with lifecycle greenhouse emissions. 

Net-zero road transport emissions by 2050 cannot happen through EVs alone. Wide-scale charging infrastructure deployment, and a smart, low-carbon electricity grid, are intrinsic parts of the roadmap. The UK’s electricity supply is transforming, with carbon intensity falling by more than 50% during the past six years. The decarbonisation of the grid will allow EVs to be truly zero-emission. 


Challenges and barriers

One of greatest challenges is the heavy-duty vehicle sector. The UK bus sector has been progressive, with 10% of new bus sales being electric; more than 300 are in operation. However, the market for electric urban trucks faces barriers. These include limited available models and high vehicle capital costs. Electrification of fleet depots is also difficult economically and in terms of charging infrastructure. It will take many years and government funding to kickstart the market.

For long-haul trucks, low-carbon and sustainable fuels such as biomethane and biodiesel will play a role; these are being deployed by logistics companies and supermarkets. The commercialisation of more advanced low-carbon fuels will be a necessity for the road transport and aviation sectors during the next decade. 

Finally, zero-emission transport must be sustainable. Supply chains for the raw materials used in lithium batteries will require management in order to conserve resources and maintain availability. The responsible mining of metal resources will be increasingly important, driven by investors’ ESG responsibilities. The automotive R&D community needs to address battery end-of-life, embracing the circular economy through improved battery design that allows raw materials to be recycled and batteries re-used. Numerous challenges must be addressed – but collaboration between stakeholders, innovation and intelligent national policies will help overcome them.  

Driving change

Electric vehicles will play a significant role in the decarbonisation of road transport 

25%- Road transport is responsible for 25% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions

30%- A 30% increase in new electric car sales each year is required to hit UK government targets

50%- The UK’s carbon intensity has fallen by more than 50% during the past six years

10%- of new bus sales are electric

Gloria Esposito, MIEMA CEnv is head of projects at the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership

Image credit | Shutterstock
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