The UK’s Science and Technology Select Committee has released its 20thand latest report, titled Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets. In it, the executive summary acknowledges that the decarbonisation of the UK’s economy is critical for the environment and a legally binding target for the Government.
The transport sector is now the largest-emitting sector of the UK economy, and the report’s summary recommends that the Government should bring forward the proposed ban on sales of new conventional cars and vans to 2035 at the latest. It also fires a shot across the bows of relying upon battery electric vehicles alone, urging more research on their actual environmental impact and acknowledging the role of hydrogen technology in a diversified energy mix.
“Hydrogen technology may prove to be cheaper and less environmentally-damaging than battery-powered electric vehicles. The Government should not rely on a single technology,” it states.
It’s good to see hydrogen getting some deserved recognition here, but the same report also says there is significant scope for emissions reductions in the transport sector by implementing greater incentives or cost parity for public transport and encouraging people to get out of the car and on their feet or cycling pedals. There are some interesting points in this report, but elements such as this are highly unrealistic in my view. Already today across various national radio stations I’ve heard the narrative that ‘ditching’ the car is the overriding conclusion of the report. It isn’t, but as long as that narrative is in play I fear the report becomes ‘just another study’ to the masses when the message should perhaps be that the technologies to decarbonise exist, they just need more urgent investment.
This isn’t my biggest quandary with this report, however. The report is just as hard-hitting on the action required by the Government as it is in commending the progress already made, and it should be welcomed. It’s a very comprehensive report looking into so many of the aspects of the energy chain that resonate, and it should be rightly lauded for that too.
My frustration is more that whilst the government has reportedly said it would ‘consider’ the committee’s findings, that is yet more time wasted in deliberating rather than acting. We need more than consideration, we need action, and now.
“The report itself affirms that there are ‘a number of areas’ in which Government policy to support the deployment of low-carbon technologies has been delayed or cut back”
The report itself affirms that there are ‘a number of areas’ in which Government policy to support the deployment of low-carbon technologies has been delayed or cut back. The ‘plug-in grant’ for low-emissions cars was reduced from £4,500 to £3,500 for the lowest-emissions cars in October 2018, and cut completely for other low-emissions cars; the ‘feed-in tariff’ for low-carbon power generation was closed in April 2019 without a successor scheme in place.
Achieving the Government’s key targets will require an acceleration of the deployment of low carbon technologies – and fast.
Yet I can’t help thinking that we’ve arguably just had three years – and counting – wasted with the distraction of ‘Brexit’. Is this not another example of that, and the diversion of the crucial funds and effort that could have been invested in decarbonisation and accelerating clean energies like hydrogen (infrastructure)?
Whatever your political persuasion on the subject of Brexit, it is of course not irrelevant but it shouldbe an aside in the bigger picture of climate change and doing what is clearly necessary right now. We need a clearer and more urgent focus on sustainable power and mobility.
Today’s report acknowledges that while decarbonisation offers opportunity for economic growth, it will inevitably also entail costs. The Committee on Climate Change has estimated that achieving net-zero emissions could cost around 1–2% of GDP by 2050. It is therefore important that these costs are shared fairly among citizens, and that the Government ensures its policies for achieving net-zero emissions consider the economic impacts on individuals.
“…let’s urgently work on the mechanisms to bring down the cost of new vehicle technologies for the individual; let’s get an appropriate level of infrastructure in place to facilitate the adoption of such vehicles”
If the transport sector is now the largest-emitting sector of the UK economy and we look at mobility alone, then let’s get on with getting the right funding and infrastructure in place. Whether it’s in the form of grants, subsidies or convoluted taxation policies, let’s urgently work on the mechanisms to bring down the cost of new vehicle technologies for the individual; let’s get an appropriate level of infrastructure in place to facilitate the adoption of such vehicles and eliminate range anxiety; get some tangible traction for these movements and do whatever it takes to change the mindset.
It’s fanciful to think we can steer clear of hybrids or outlaw conventional vehicles quicker – we have to be realistic and provide as many bridges to completely clean mobility as possible. Efficient hybrid vehicles are already reducing vehicle emissions and if more of those on the road will help the drive to fully decarbonise transport with zero-emission vehicles like hydrogen-powered FCEVs and battery electric vehicles (BEVs), then so be it.
The potential technologies for decarbonisation are right there, we just need to embrace them and convince the public at large.
If we address this from a hydrogen point of view, then FCEVs offer several significant benefits. They can drive long distances without needing to refuel (already more than 500km); when they do refuel, they do so quickly in just 3-5 minutes); and on a technical level, thanks to the much higher energy density of the hydrogen storage system (compared to batteries), the sensitivity of the FCEV powertrain cost and weight to the amount of energy stored (kWh) is low (How Hydrogen Empowers the Energy Transition, Hydrogen Council study, 2017).
FCEV infrastructure can also build upon existing fuel distribution and retail infrastructure, creating cost advantages and preserving local jobs and capital assets.
It’s clear then, that FCEVs will be important across mobility in decarbonising passenger cars, heavy-duty transportation, buses, and non-electrified trains. It’s also worth noting that continuous improvements in the cost and performance of hydrogen related technologies are continually being made throughout the value chain. But many investments in hydrogen still require a timeframe of 10-20 years to reach true realisation, and infrastructure investments are often needed before consumer demand increases. A paradigm shift doesn’t come cheap and it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why I don’t think we can wait any longer.
It’s right to point out that the UK was the first country to legislate for legally binding greenhouse gas emissions targets and earlier this year became the first country in the G7 to legislate for net-zero emissions. Since 2000, the UK has achieved greater decarbonisation than any other country in the G20. It has outperformed its first (2008–2012) and second (2013–2017) carbon budgets by around 1% and 14%, respectively, and is on track to outperform its third carbon budget (2018–2022).
But there are surely some pressing questions to be answered. First and foremost, is this progress enough? Is the UK on track to meet its fourth (2023–2027) and fifth (2028–2032) carbon budgets? The Committee on Climate Change has warned that it is not.
Today’s report should be a welcome stimulus for change, but a stimulus needs the resulting action to be truly given that term. Let’s hope it gets more than just consideration during these important times.