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What's next on the Road to Zero?

Darren Shirley's picture
car exhaust

Today marks a year since the Government published its Road to Zero strategy, aimed at setting the UK's road transport sector en route to a low-carbon future. The strategy set out an ambition that half of new cars sold should be ultra-low emission by 2030, and promised a massive roll-out of charging infrastructure.

A year ago, Campaign for Better Transport welcomed Road to Zero, but warned that it lacked the necessary urgency to tackle road transport’s contribution to climate change. A year on, the need for urgency has only increased. The Government has committed to a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 against a backdrop of unprecedented public concern about climate change. But transport - the laggard of emissions reduction - will make reaching that target impossible without coordinated initiatives. To put transport’s poor performance in context, while emissions from energy supply have fallen by 60 per cent since 1990, emissions from transport have barely budged. We need to move up a gear on the Road to Zero; but what exactly will that look like?

Electric cars will play a central role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport, as well as cleaning up the toxic air in many of our towns and cities. We welcome the Government’s positive approach to ultra-low emission vehicles and its investment in electric charging infrastructure, but this needs to go faster and further.

Figures released last week by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders showed that sales of low emission cars in the UK have fallen for the first time in more than two years, proof that just waiting for the market to deliver ultra-low emissions will not be enough. Action is needed to end the sale of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles, but Road to Zero does not do this until 2040 – over 20 years from now. We cannot allow another generation to pass before we halt the proliferation of the most polluting cars: we should end all sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 at the latest, in line with guidance from the Committee on Climate Change.

Secondly, with figures from the AA showing that 76% of people think electric vehicles can’t go far enough on a single charge, the Government must produce a clear vision of the scale of charging infrastructure required to overcome ‘range anxiety’ for a fully electric car fleet and ensure it is delivered. Road to Zero announced a £400 million Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund, which is welcome, but more is needed, as is a plan to prevent public charging points from encroaching on pavements or competing for kerb space with bikes and buses. 

Thirdly, we cannot meet our emissions targets or clean up our polluted air by electrifying cars alone. We also need to develop a cleaner bus fleet, with more electric and hydrogen buses. This is already happening in a handful of places, but with funding currently sporadic and limited, we need a National Bus Strategy to instil the confidence needed to invest in green technology on a much larger scale. As well as reducing emissions this would support jobs in bus manufacturing and help establish the UK amongst the international leaders on clean public transport. 

And let’s not forget that running parallel to the Road to Zero there’s a rail track that also needs electrifying. Research commissioned by Campaign for Better Transport has shown how efforts to clean up transport are likely to stall unless rail electrification schemes are resumed. The Government has cancelled a series of electrification projects, most recently in 2017 when it scrapped plans to electrify parts of the Midland Main Line, the Great Western Main Line and the Lakes Line. These schemes must restart as part of a rolling programme of rail electrification. 

Finally, the Government needs to do more to improve walking, cycling, car-sharing and public transport, giving us all more choice in how we travel. Electric cars are not a silver bullet, but they are part of the solution that relies on greater use of shared and public transport. 

The challenges facing transport have increased since Road to Zero was published; the Government must act with more urgency to update the strength and pace of its activities across all forms of transport if it is to reach its destination.


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