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The Lull before the Storm? Britain’s Clean-Energy Transport Transition

10.08.19 | Blog | By:

The UK (along with the rest of Europe) has ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from transport, and has recently set new goals for electric cars.  This article looks at what’s been achieved.

On the face of it, efforts to reduce UK transport GHG emissions have stalled, if not failed.

UK transport CO2e emissions have barely changed since 1990[i]. Between 2013 and 2018 UK transport CO2 emissions actually increased. Surface transport, aviation and agriculture were the only three sectors in which emissions grew, of the nine key aggregate sectors. Surface transport and aviation accounted for 165Mt CO2e; one third of the 503MT CO2e UK total greenhouse gas emissions. (In the wider European Union (EU) transport emissions, including aviation but excluding international shipping, increased by 26% between 1990 and 2016 despite reductions between 2008 and 2013).[ii]

Trends in UK sectoral greenhouse gas emissions, 1990 – 2018Source: BEIS (2019) 2018 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures; BEIS (2019) 2017 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures; CCC calculations.
Notes: The chart on the right-hand side shows changes in sectoral emissions between 2013 and 2018 for all sectors except for Agriculture, LULUCF, Waste and F-Gases which cover the period 2013-2017; buildings emissions in this chart are temperature-adjusted.

The task of decarbonising UK transport is even greater than these figures indicate, because these targets refer to the vehicle combustion emissions and exclude the embedded carbon in vehicle production and infrastructure on which the vehicles operate: airports, roads, train lines.  Transport therefore is by far the UK’s largest sector in terms greenhouse gas emissions.

This, of course, is due to addiction to fossil fuel.  Progress with alternatives to fossil fuel has been slow. UK biofuel use is approximately 4% by volume against an 8.5% 2019 target; a target that increases to 9.75% in 2020.[iii] (Biofuel accounted for 7.1% of energy use in transport in the EU in 2018, versus the 2020 target of 10%).[iv] Battery and plug-in hybrid cars accounted for just 2.2% of new car sales in the first half of 2019, split evenly between the two types.[v] (Electrically chargeable vehicles accounted for 2% of new car registrations in the EU in 2018).[vi]

More fundamentally, consumer surveys and day-to-day experience show that lifecycle carbon footprints are not a key factor in new vehicle choice, and emissions are not a key consideration in journey modal-choice.[vii]

The obstacles to transition are significant.

As in the US, electric cars were neck-and-neck with combustion cars in some early years of 20th century, but lost out on cost, performance, range and convenience. These four factors remain primary considerations in vehicle and modal choice today, and fossil fuels deliver them in abundance. The alternatives to fossil fuelled cars cost more to make, and cost more to buy – for the time being at least.

The cost presents an obstacle which in turn presents two more. These same three key obstacles to clean energy in transport have consistently arisen over the last 25 years: the consumer’s unwillingness to pay means the investor’s internal hurdle rate can’t be met, and hence Government is disinterested in mandatory action.

It’s not cost alone however. Performance and convenience are key. In practical terms, as a rough guide, gasoline is 100 times more energy dense than batteries.[viii] In less than 2 minutes a diesel car can refuel to run for 1000km, but in the same time even the very latest electric cars will charge to run for less than 100km.[ix] Car batteries consume emission-intensive and scarce materials, and are less than 20% recyclable.[x]

In England over 30% of dwellings have no off-street parking, making access to electric recharging difficult.[xi] Meanwhile UK road transport demand is rising at 0.8% p.a.[xii] driven by growing population, economic activity and particularly changing patterns of distribution including home delivery. (In the EU as a whole, passenger and freight transport kilometres increased by 2.6% and 1.2% respectively in 2014-15, the latest year available).[xiii]

In this context, real progress is being made.

In contrast to just ten years ago, climate change and air quality are now firmly on the consumer, business and political agendas, and this will only increase as people are better informed.

The automotive industry has delivered considerable improvements in production efficiency, reducing energy used per vehicle produced from 3.9 to 2.2 MWh/unit between 1999 and 2018, and the resulting production emissions from 1.1 to 0.51 tonnes CO2/unit.[xiv]

New car tailpipe emissions have reduced by 31% in two decades, with average new car CO2 emissions reducing from 181g/km2 in 1999 to 124.5g/km2 in 2018. The EU passenger car standard is 95g/km CO2, phasing-in for 95% of vehicles in 2020, and 100% compliance in 2021.[xv]

Further reduction in tailpipe emissions depends much on electric vehicle uptake. It was however necessary to decarbonise electricity for electric vehicles to be a viable alternative. In 2018 UK renewable electricity tipped 33% of grid supply. Adding nuclear, the UK reached 56% of UK energy being ‘low carbon’.[xvi] (Comparable EU data on renewable energy as a percent of final energy consumption in 2017 puts the EU average at 17.5%, and the UK at 10%).[xvii]

EV range is now up to 300 miles[xviii] and lifecycle costs are c.5% less.[xix]  Two of the leading electric cars – the Nissan Leaf and the Jaguar I-PACE, are made in the UK.  In heavy duty transport, where battery weight imposes a considerable penalty, zero-emission hydrogen and sustainable jet fuels are technically viable. Britain’s ITM and Velocys are leaders in these respective technologies.

Looking ahead, there’s much to achieve between now and 2050.

The UK government has set the target for at least half of new cars to be ultra-low emission by 2030, and for the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.  Delivering this in the road transport sector will require rapid acceleration in electric vehicle uptake[xx] and in the aviation sector will require rapid deployment of sustainable aviation fuel.

To supply a ‘net zero’ economy, significant further changes will be needed in energy infrastructure, particularly electricity generation and storage.

“In the Net Zero sensitivity, increased electrification of the economy increases peak demand for electricity, with this peak gradually increasing to around 115GW in 2050, almost twice today’s level. As in our 2050 compliant scenarios, smart charging, appliances, and vehicle-to-grid play a key role in system flexibility and managing peak demand”. —National Grid Future Energy Scenarios, July 2019

Further Government action is needed so alternative technology can improve to match the performance and cost of fossil-energy used in internal combustion engines. The UK has invested significantly in electric vehicle battery technology[xxi] but many observe this is a drop in the ocean.

At the global scale, calls persist for a credible international carbon price that will price-in carbon costs on a lifecycle basis and reward low-carbon research and development.[xxii] At the local level, there are further calls for incentives and penalties that make the polluter pay – including road pricing.[xxiii] Infrastructure change must be accelerated with appropriate R&D, investment and carbon credits, with particular emphasis on overcoming constraints in electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Further investment is in lower carbon public transport must deliver consumer choice and the efficiency gains of mass transit. The UK Government has just announced a £220m investment programme to electrify public buses, including new ‘on demand’ services.[xxiv]

The switch to lower-carbon transport must also be enabled by better consumer understanding of the risks of inaction, combined with willingness to change consumption patterns to provide the demand-pull for low carbon transport.  This is starting to happen. A recent poll found two-thirds of people in the UK think the amount people fly should be reined-in to tackle climate change.[xxv] The CEO of London’s Heathrow Airport has called for a “positive global plan for how we can decarbonise aviation”.[xxvi]  Progressive businesses increasingly recognise the need for improved consumer services and choice in energy, transport and product supply.  These will need to be underpinned by the policy and technology improvements referenced above to create a virtuous circle of progressive improvement, and there are signs that these links are coming together.

Much of the ground work has been done to enable rapid transition over the next 20 years

On the face of it the energy transition in UK transport has stalled, if not failed, with greenhouse gas emissions stubbornly refusing to decline, and electric vehicle and bio-fuel sales languishing in the single-digit percentages. Attitudes and technology however are changing fast, with electric vehicle capability reaching acceptable consumer benchmarks, and electricity supply having been aggressively decarbonised. Arguably much of the ground work has been completed for the UK transport energy transition to rapidly accelerate over the next 20 years.

Darran Messem is an independent consultant and Non-Executive Director based in the UK. His appointments include Director of BRE, the building science centre; Director of Velocys, the sustainable jet fuel producer; and Chairman of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, a public-private partnership to accelerate the deployment of low carbon vehicles and fuels.


[i] Reducing UK Emissions: 2019 Progress Report to Parliament. UK Committee on Climate Change, July 2019. Figure 1.5.

[ii] Greenhouse gas emissions from transport in Europe, European Environment Agency, November 2018, modified 18 September 2019.

[iii] The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations Order; Government response to the consultation on amendments.  UK Department for Transport, September 2017.

[iv] EU-28 Biofuels Annual, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, July 17 2019.

[v] UK Department for Transport Vehicle Licencing Statistics VEH0253.

[vi] ACEA Key Figures October 1 2019 (

[vii] Consumer research examining the importance of total cost of ownership during the car buying process. Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, 1 October 2019.

[viii] Argonne laboratory 2016.

[ix] Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne, 2016, updated by Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership.

[x] Cosworth.

[xi] English Housing Survey, Homes 2010.  UK Communities and Local Government, 2012.

[xii] Provisional Road Traffic Estimates, Great Britain, April 2018 – March 2019. UK Department for Transport. June 13 2019.

[xiii] European Commission Statistical Pocket Book 2017, EU Transport in Figures.

[xiv] 2019 UK Automotive Sustainability Report, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, 2019.

[xv] International Council on Clean Transport, EU Vehicle Targets (

[xvi] UK Energy Statistics Q3 2018.

[xvii] (

[xviii] Jaguar IPace 292 miles, Tesla over 300, claimed.

[xix] International Council for Clean Transportation, February 2019.

[xx] Electric vehicle uptake: Time to press the accelerator? Madano, 2018.

[xxi] “UK leads drive to develop next generation of car batteries with £55m of funding”, The Telegraph, 4 September 2019.

[xxii] “Carbon pricing is the way to rectify runaway climate change”, World Economic Forum, 22 September 2019.

[xxiii] “Road pricing key to solving UK traffic woes”, University of Kent, 12 February 2019.

[xxiv] “Government to spend £220m on buses and create ‘all-electric bus towns’”, Air Quality News, 30 September 2019.

[xxv] “Most people in the UK back limits on flying to tackle climate change”, New Scientist, 18 September 2019.

[xxvi] “Heathrow CEO: Aviation sector must set net-zero plan ‘as soon as possible’”, Edie, 25 September 2019.

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