Monday Musing: The Climate of the UK’s Transport Sector

 BPA intern Asli Ates gives provides her insight into the UK's Climate sector 

On 19th December 2019, the Guardian reported that 2019 was the greenest year, as 'low-carbon' electricity beat fossil fuels for 137 days, based on data released by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Thanks to a range of changing factors including shifts in public perception, more efficient technologies, and decrease in prices, renewable energy generation is cheaper and more feasible today than ever. This indicates that a lower carbon economy is possible and a transition in the energy sector is happening. However, this is a far cry from what is happening in the transport sector.

The transport sector in the UK is the largest emitter of Carbon Dioxide, which makes decarbonization of the sector crucial. A look at the table below shows that the sector’s emissions haven’t changed much from the 1990 levels.

CO2 figures

Source: 2018 UK GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS, PROVISIONAL FIGURES, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

While this is disappointing it doesn't mean that the transport sector is not seeing innovation and change. The Joint BPA/ Sussex University Connected Values research project has explored innovations for sustainability in car parks and has come across many interesting developments. Shared mobility platforms, smart applications, automated systems, solar carports and EV charging points are some of the innovations that have been introduced in parking spaces. The most innovative solutions are ‘the connected’ systems which integrate energy and transport infrastructures. For example, Dundee City Council has introduced a charging hub in Greenmarket car park, one of several cleaner transport initiatives in the city. The charging hub includes solar canopies, EV charging points and an energy storage unit, and is reframing Greenmarket car park as a focal point of decarbonisation services in the city, supporting green energy and transport, providing more flexibility and resilience to the city and the energy grid.

Whilst projects like this draw a positive picture for the future, innovations based on the integration between transport and energy are still the exception, rather than the rule in the UK. It is time we ask: Why are there only a handful of such projects and what are the obstacles for the development of more decarbonized, resilient, and sustainable systems?

By way of an answer consider this; of the existing large integrated projects most are local authority projects, the two exceptions are at the headquarter of insurance company Aviva and car manufacturer Bentley. The reason is obvious for many in the parking sector. While energy generation through solar panels is fairly easy to implement and economically proven, EV charging and energy storage installations require high investment costs. When combined with low usage, the repayment period becomes longer and unviable for private companies. Local councils on the other hand, at least the ones with capacity, can access different sources of financing, such as government loans. Moreover, councils can bear lower rates of return or longer payback periods than companies who generally don’t wait a decade or more to derive revenue from their investments even though it is more beneficial for today’s and tomorrow’s society. For example, the two big mobility-as-a-service companies Bluecity and DriveNow just announced their withdrawal from the UK due to the low adoption rates, leaving big gaps in the sharing mobility sector.

The likelihood of mobility as a service or electrification becoming financially feasible soon is, I think unlikely. That is why I believe it is important to understand “sustainability” as a process rather than an achievement, and we should be re-thinking the economy from a sustainability perspective. The traditional profit-making processes has benefitted from not paying for the full cost of the activity by ignoring the pollution created, leading to today’s world of climate change. Therefore, if we are talking about building ‘futureproof, sustainable and resilient’ systems, I believe we should be open to thinking and developing financial assessments that would take into account the future benefits, not only for today’s societies but also for tomorrow’s societies.