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The drive to decarbonise the UK’s transport industry

Decarbonising transport is vital to the UK’s net zero ambitions, with the sector having accounted for 24% of the country’s carbon emissions. There is an abundance of opportunities to innovate to tackle climate change across the sector too, offering the potential to accelerate the race to net zero.

The will to adapt, and to operate in a more sustainable way, certainly exists – and many organisations have set the wheels in motion by establishing decarbonisation strategies to plot a route forward.

During a recent round-table event, the first in a series being hosted by Deloitte’s transport team, key figures from across the sector gathered to discuss the need to act quickly to decarbonise travel – and share their views on how industry-wide thinking can drive progress.

Within this blog we’ll share the thoughts and expertise of industry leaders, highlighting the key takeaways that can help drive the transition within the transport sector.

The transport challenge

Though clearly they have a role to play, decarbonising transport does not rely solely on the business operations and networks of each individual organisation, but on incentivising transformational changes in human behaviours.

With 80% of transport-related emissions attributable to road vehicles, there is an obvious need to move away from carbon-intensive modes of transport to low-carbon solutions, like public and active transport such as walking, running or cycling.

There is a real risk that the UK’s current economic challenges, and the disruption to travel networks that has come with them, could exacerbate the transport emissions problem too.

The Rail Delivery Group suggests that if, as a result of recent disruptions, 20% of rail users were to switch to cars, it could fuel an additional 1m tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. This led the transport leaders attending our recent round table event to discuss the need for consensus on where collective efforts could be focused to drive change.

There was an acceptance that there needs to be an acceleration in the rate of change across the industry, but positivity in identifying the priority actions which could be taken to accelerate the transition, including;

  • Accelerating the transition to Electric Vehicles
  • Encouraging the use of public and active transport through targeted policy action such as extending incentives such as the cycle to work scheme
  • Transforming user experience on public transport
  • Creating integrated micro-mobility and active travel infrastructure

Key takeaways

Discussions among industry leaders focused on teaming together would accelerate action and optimise the impact of those efforts on the race to net zero, which we’ve distilled into four key takeaways.

1. Develop a comprehensive, system-wide, strategy that prioritises decarbonisation

The most significant hurdle impacting delivery is the fragmentation between sectors and organisations where clear decisions and a clear path forward are lacking.

Attendees at the round tables agreed that an increased level of collaboration was required and that an integrated strategy should be developed to cover multiple modes of transportation across entire sector and take into account existing and future uses/scenarios.

Establishing a cohesive strategy would enable individual stakeholders and businesses to align actions to incorporate decarbonisation into their business as usual (BAU) and accelerate the transition.

2. The need for quick actions and changes

While other sectors suffer a void in terms of available technology to support their net zero objectives, various solutions are available to the transport sector, whether through increasing use of rail or uptake of EVs or switching to hydrogen or electric-powered buses.

What we heard from industry leaders was that the pace and scale of change had been restricted by a combination of factors, not least its dependence on other sectors for the decarbonised electricity supply required to deliver net zero transport systems.

There was recognition, though, that in order to meet the decarbonisation targets actions to enable the transition must be fast-tracked – the industry cannot wait for other sectors to act first but can help enable the transition by removing demand for fossil fuels now. Increasing adoption of cleaner modes of transport such as EVs and public transport networks relies upon educating commuters about the impact of their choices and adapting suitable solutions to their needs.

3. The need for an emotionally connected society

Experts at our roundtable discussed the need for a public campaign to clearly communicate the benefits of sustainable lifestyles such as active travel and to remove barriers to maximise uptake.

Offering people the chance to try was seen as an important first step.

Young people, in particular, are concerned about sustainability because they will bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change. Private organisations can influence consumers through choice editing, as well as educating and inspiring people to live more environmentally friendly lifestyles.

4. The need for access to real time data

Data is critical to achieving decarbonisation, with its various uses from digital simulation to benefit measurement.

In these uncertain economic times, having access to real-time data would help with better decision making, such as using digital twins to create electronic modelling and enable optimisation of operations under different conditions.

Furthermore, demonstrating the co-benefits of decarbonizing transportation through active travel, such as air quality and mental health, and translating those into economic savings to offset cost of living pressures, could lead to a lifestyle change for many.

It's clear that, within the transport sector, there are a number of reasons to be positive about the potential for change.

There’s a clear need for industry, policy makers and consumers alike to team up to make sure that acceleration of the decarbonisation agenda within transport is delivered.

Ensuring more sustainable transport options are affordable and educating people the benefits of adopting alternative modes of transport for the environment – as well as for physical and mental health – will increase uptake and drive meaningful change.