‘Pick winners’: MPs urge government to back specific technologies to decarbonise transport
UK’s current technology agnostic approach to greening transport is slowing investment, MPs on the Transport Committee warn
MPs have urged the government to shelve its current “technology neutral” approach to decarbonising transport and start backing specific technology solutions, including sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and rail electrification.
In a report published yesterday, the Transport Committee warned the government’s deliberately technology agnostic approach was holding back much-needed private investment in technologies that could reduce the climate impact of the road, rail, maritime, and aviation sectors.
The MPs urged the government to instead adopt a policy of “targeted technology investment” that they said would give the private sector more confidence to invest in infrastructure that will be critical to delivering on the transport sector’s climate goals.
“The Committee heard time and again from experts that the government’s solution-neutral approach was understandable up to a point,” said Transport Committee chair Iain Stewart. “But the time has now come for ministers, using the knowledge of alternative fuels we now have across all modes of transport, to show leadership and pick winners.”
For the decarbonisation of aviation, the report urged the government to back Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) that can be relatively easily integrated into existing infrastructure. SAFs encompasses biofuels – which are produced by using energy crops or municipal waste – and synthetic fuels which can be produced with zero emissions using captured carbon and green hydrogen.
The report urges the government to introduce a Contracts for Difference regime to provide developers with long term contracts that will allow them to invest in new SAF production capacity, arguing the fuel is “most likely” to become the aviation sector’s fuel of choice in the medium term.
However, SAFs remain highly controversial, with campaigners questioning whether high levels of demand for the fuel could have significant knock on impacts land use that could drive drive deforestation and biodiversity destruction, while exacerbating food insecurity. Meanwhile, academic studies have detailed how the emissions produced by clearing land and fertilising, farming, and shipping many ‘energy crops’ can be almost as large, and in some cases larger, than the emissions resulting from the fossil fuels they are designed to replace.
Earlier this week, science academy the Royal Society warned that producing SAF to meet the UK’s net zero ambitions for the aviation sector would require an “enormous quantity of agricultural land” or, in the case of synthetic fuels, a massive uplift in renewable energy capacity.
But Stewart insisted the government should press ahead with scaling up SAF capacity in the UK, arguing they are likely to prove the most readily available decarbonisation solution for the aviation sector, beyond demand reduction measures.
“With aviation – widely seen as one of the most high-polluting modes of transport for consumers – the government should invest in sustainable aviation fuels to help galvanise innovation and progress in the sector,” he said.
The Committee also warned greater certainty is needed within the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) as to whether hydrogen, battery, or biofuel technologies are likely to win out, with MPs recommending the government publish a long-term HGV decarbonisation strategy “as a matter of priority”.
In addition, the MPs urged ministers to speed up the electrification of the UK’s railway lines, more than half of which still run on emissions intensive diesel. They said a long-term, costed strategy for decarbonising the rail network is needed which includes a rough breakdown of the technologies likely to be deployed across the network in the coming decades.
With electrification not economical in more isolated areas of the country, the delivery plan should consider electrification supplemented by hydrogen, battery-powered and bi-mode or tri-mode traction trains, the MPs said.
“We also strongly urge the government to crack on with projects for electrifying train lines throughout the UK, or identify alternative lower-carbon motive power solutions where full electrification is not economically viable,” Stewart said.
For maritime, the MPs recommended the government work closely with the international shipping regulatory body the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to develop global standards to support the transition to ships run on lower carbon ammonia and hydrogen fuels.
The report singles out ammonia as having particular promise, noting the fuel requires less storage space than hydrogen and can be used with existing fossil gas infrastructure.
The MPs have also urged the UK to use its voice at the IMO – an organisation heavily criticised for its underpowered efforts to tackle the climate crisis – to push for actions that provide a clear pathway for investment in alternative maritime fuels.
When it comes to passenger vehicles, the Committee appears to contradict its headline call for a more targeted technology approach. Here, it urges the government to not let its commitment to electric vehicles come at the expense of alternative “drop-in” synthetic fuels and biofuels.
The introduction of these alternative fuels could help relieve capacity on the grid and be a more socially equitable options, because it would mean drivers could save on the purchase of new EVs and charging infrastructure whilst still reducing the climate impact of their journeys, the MPs said.
These “drop-in” fuels could cater to conventional engine cars after sales of new fossil fuel cars are banned from 2030 onwards, according to MPs.
The MPs note that nobody should be expected to give up using diesel, petrol, or hybrid cars, especially those in rural and isolated locations which “account for a negligible proportion of the population’s transport emissions” and where EVs may not currently be viable.
They also urged Ministers to allocate some of the government’s Rapid Charging Fund to bolster grid capacity in order to facilitate wider use of EV charge points in isolated areas.
In response to the report, a Department for Transport spokesperson said: A DfT spokesperson said: “Our Transport Decarbonisation Plan sets out an ambitious and credible plan to reach net zero and reduce emissions across all modes, delivering better journeys for everyone, every day. Over £2bn has already been invested in the transition to zero emission vehicles, our Sustainable Aviation Fuels programme is one of the most comprehensive in the world, we’ve electrified 800 miles of rail track in the last five years alone and announced £206m to tackle shipping emissions.”