The Climate Change Committee has published a comprehensive and impressive analysis of how to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This includes a detailed treatment of surface transport, currently responsible for 22% of UK Greenhouse gas emissions, the absolute amount having changed little since 1990, stable in the range 110-120 MtCO2e annually. Cars account for 61% of surface transport emissions. Three options are proposed to secure emissions reduction:
Reducing demand for car travel by a variety of social and technological changes, including increased home working, online shopping, increased car occupancy though shared mobility, a shift to active travel and public transport, and more fuel-efficient driving.
Improving conventional vehicle fuel efficiency through regulation of road vehicle performance, use of biofuels, and more rail electrification.
Widespread deployment of electric vehicles (EVs) with the uptake of new battery EVs to reach 90-100% by 2030, in line with the government’s intention to phase out sales of new conventional cars and vans by that date. Driving range is expected to improve as battery technology advances. Sufficient charging infrastructure would be needed for the 30% of car users without access to off-street parking, as well as rapid charging for longer trips. The electricity supply system will need reinforcement.
The CCC has modelled the quantitative requirements associated with these options to show that it is possible to reduce surface transport emissions to 32 MtCO2e in 2035 and to 0.9 MtCO2e in 2050. The largest contribution comes from EVs. There are of course multiple uncertainties, many of which have been modelled.
The question is to what extent it will be possible to follow this emissions reduction pathway without measures beyond those already planned. Will it be necessary to create stronger incentives, for instance through more subsidy for EV charging facilities, or by making conventional vehicles more costly to operate through increased taxation? Changing relative prices can be a powerful incentive to change behaviour. It has not been helpful that public transport fares have risen much faster in recent years than the cost of motoring, in part due to a freeze on the rate of road fuel duty since 2010, reflecting perceived political sensitivities.
I am not optimistic about the practical possibilities that would increase the cost of car use, even for the virtuous cause of tackling climate change. We will have to make the most of regulation, the costs of which are more opaque, to effect the necessary changes.