Modelling transport decarbonisation

The Department for Transport’s Decarbonisation Plan projects the decline of domestic transport greenhouse gas emissions from the present 120 MtCO2e a year to approaching zero by 2050 (see figure above). There is considerable initial uncertainty about the pathway but the range of projected outcomes narrows over time as the proportion of zero emission vehicles increases. The modelling is largely based on the Department’s long-established National Transport Model. Although little detail is provided, there are headline numbers for cumulative emission reductions over the period 2020 to 2050.

For cycling and walking, the projected savings from investments and policy initiatives are put at 1-6 MtCO2e, a notably wide range. For cars and vans, the savings are estimated to be 620-850 MtCO2e, a proportionately narrower range, reflecting greater confidence in the impact of policy to phase out the internal combustion engine. What is striking is the relatively tiny decarbonisation contribution expected from increases in active travel, at best one percent of that from car decarbonisation. This is surprising, given the prominence in the Plan of the intention to promote active travel, including expenditure of £2 billion over five years. This looks like a case of virtue signalling by DfT, wanting to be on the side of the angels.

Counting on minimal decarbonisation benefit from more cycling is consistent with the evidence from Copenhagen and other European cities that you can get people off the buses onto bikes but that it is difficult to get them out of their cars. In any event, 80% of car carbon emissions arise from trips of more than five miles, implying limited scope for savings from mode switching from car to active travel.

More generally, the DfT’s Plan relies very largely on technological innovation to achieve net zero for domestic transport by 2050. Others see a need for significant reduction in travel demand, including the Climate Change Committee (CCC) in its Sixth Carbon Budget report of December 2020, which envisages 20% of transport emission reductions from reduced demand. The CCC recommended commitment to 78% reduction in overall emissions by 2035 compared with 1990 levels. This was accepted by the government and is to be implemented through sector plans, of which the Transport Decarbonisation Plan is the first. 

The question of the need for travel demand reduction is crucial, given this could be both unpopular and difficult to achieve. One can see why the DfT might shy away from measures to reduce demand, such as significant increases in the cost of travel. But aside from the political sensitivities, could such measures be justified on the basis of existing models that generate conflicting conclusions and whose validity is unproven?

The National Transport Model is an elaborate model of the surface transport sector. Other relevant models are essentially energy models of the whole economy, including the transport sector. All these models are complex and opaque, with many parameters whose magnitude requires professional judgement. Given the timescale to 2050, it is not possible to validate models by comparing forecast with outturn. Models are therefore prone to optimism bias, whether unconsciously because modellers want to please their clients, or consciously in aid of achieving some higher purpose.

Greater transparency of the National Transport Model would allow us to understand whether there has been undue optimism about the prospects for decarbonisation by technology. However, such transparency seems unlikely. The DfT has always resisted allowing others to use its model on the grounds that its components employ proprietary software developed by consultants. Not that this is unique. Most transport modelling utilises proprietary models owned by consultants. This contrasts with practice elsewhere.

The Treasury’s model of the UK economy has been available for external use for many years. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has developed its energy modelling in close collaboration with academia and plans to increase transparency. Climate modelling is an international, open, collaborative effort that feeds into the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The epidemiological modelling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has informed decisions on lockdowns and vaccine deployment, has been carried out not within government, but by university modellers, collaboratively and transparently.

Transport modelling needs to move on, to become transparent and collaborative rather than opaque and proprietary. More effort needs to be devoted to validating models by comparing forecast with outturn where that is possible, for instance over the initial years following the opening of a new element of infrastructure. For the period through to 2050, the best that can be done is for modellers to run their models on common assumptions, to understand why forecasts differ, and then to vary assumptions to test the sensitivity of forecasts to bias, both optimism and pessimism, whether concerning technological innovations or behavioural change.

We need an informed consensus from the modellers of transport decarbonisation to inform the development of policy.

The text above was published in Local Transport Today edition of 18 October 2021. Since this piece was drafted, two further relevant publications have become available.

CREDS, the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, a consortium of university groups, published a substantial report on the role of energy demand reduction in achieving net zero, including the energy associated with the transport system. The report concluded that the UK could halve its demand for energy by 2050, which would substantially ease the task of meeting that demand with zero carbon emissions. For transport, an ambitious set of assumptions were made, including that single occupancy car use becomes socially unacceptable and that the car fleet is reduced substantially. The model employed represents the whole energy system and is known as UK-TIMES. The model and assumptions are set out in some detail and the code has been published, which is very creditable, although it would take a professional modeller to fully appreciate the content.

The government has just published its Net Zero Strategy. This covers the whole economy including transport, although little is added to the previously published Transport Decarbonisation Plan, which placed minimal reliance on changes in travel behaviour. A technical annex sets out the modelling and assumptions used to justify the pathway to net zero by 2050, again employing the UK-TIMES model. For transport, the only behavioural change assumed is that the share of journeys in towns by active travel increases from 42% in 2019 to 55% in 2035. The trajectory of emission reduction for domestic transport on page 154 is similar to that shown in the Department for Transport decarbonisation plan, although the modelling framework used is different.

It is evident that the emission consequences of a wide range of travel behavioural change possibilities are being projected using different kinds of model. The recent publications reinforce the case for transparency and collaboration amongst the modellers.

A further addendum, November 2021

DfT has recently published papers about its new version of the National Transport Model, which is based on standard industry software and is intended to be available for use outside the Department. This is a welcome development that will make the model more transparent, although its complexity means that it is still quite opaque. However, the carbon modelling discussed above was derived form the older version of the NTM.