Decarbonising transport to reach net zero transport emissions by 2050

Published: 12th May 2021
Area: Energy
Climate change is the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.

Although work still needs to be done to encourage end-users to consider more sustainable travel, investment in electric vehicles and hydrogen can help to decarbonise transport and achieve the target for net zero by 2050.

While there have been significant developments in electric vehicle use the transport industry still faces considerable challenges.

Eddie Flanagan speaks to Simon Villanueva, Legal Director of Volvo Trucks (South and West Europe) about what is required to increase the major roll-out of green and electric vehicles and what challenges the industry are currently facing.

The energy white paper and ten-point plan

In addition to the government's ten-point plan, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy's white paper published in December 2020 sets out a timeline for the implementation of electric vehicles in the UK.

While the paper sets out the much-needed measures to deliver the long-term strategic vision and is strong in some areas, it is very broad and other EU countries have taken much bigger steps.

Electric vehicles

Although it highlights the charge point roll-out, developments of battery manufacturing capability and the phase-out timetable for petrol and diesel vehicles, the white paper contains little that is new to those working within the electric vehicle supply chain. The industry already appears to be ahead of government in this respect, with many new products hitting the market at breakneck speed.

We know that electric vehicles present a number of benefits of tackling climate change when compared to Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles, however, the main issue is the up-front capital costs. Electric vehicles tent to be three or four times as expensive as an equivalent diesel product.

Even though there is a plug-in grant scheme available in the UK, giving a discount of up to £2,500 on the price of brand new low-emission vehicles, it is not enough. Other European countries, such as Norway, Sweden and France, have better schemes in place, and Germany is currently developing a scheme whereby the government will pay 80% of the difference between the price of an electric vehicle vs a diesel vehicle.

Read more about the 2021 plug-in grant rates and the eligibility criteria, which changed on 18 March 2021.

From 1 January 2019, it became mandatory for new trucks under certain vehicle categories to adopt and follow VECTO regulations. This requires manufacturers to build products that produce 15% less CO2 by 2025, increasing to 30% by 2030 – with huge fines if these emission targets are not met.

Manufacturers are playing their part to meet the targets and keep emission levels down, but they cannot make consumers buy their products. This is why it’s essential that the government supports the industry with attractive grants and subsidies, providing consumers with an incentive to make those investments.

Cost-saving incentives

On 3 March 2021 the Chancellor announced a super-deduction tax break that can be off-set against tax liabilities, meaning that from 1 April 2021 until 31 March 2023 businesses that invest in qualifying new plant and machinery assets will be able to claim:

  • a 130% super-deduction capital allowance on qualifying plant and machinery investments
  • a 50% first-year allowance for qualifying special rate assets

The super-deduction tax break, together with various other funding instruments such as the plug-in-grant and the zero percent benefit in kind (BIK) tax, will hopefully encourage consumers to make the switch.

Charging infrastructure

Although electric vehicle batteries are becoming more efficient and capable of longer ranges, there are still a number of areas that need improvement, including a lack of charging infrastructure and longer charging times when compared to conventional refuelling.

For example, charging points for trucks need a lot of energy and space at both their transportation base as well as on the road. They also need to be parked for long periods of time while they’re charging, so there needs to be sufficient space for other vehicles to move around them.

To help with this, the UK needs a better grid. Again, this is where the government can help support the transport industry through the development of better sub-stations.

Freight trials

A £20 million government Low Emission Freight and Logistics Trial tested vans going electric, and lorries running on hydrogen dual-fuel, to cut emissions and improve air quality. The aim of the freight trial was to encourage the widespread introduction of low and zero emission vehicles to UK fleets while demonstrating new technologies to facilitate this.

While this has been a step in the right direction and helpful for the truck industry in helping to get new products and technology in front of consumers, it is not enough on its own.

The potential is there from a manufacturer’s perspective, they just need the support from the government to get the products into customer’s hands through better infrastructure and attractive subsidies.

How will the move from internal combustion engines affect the truck, PSV and other HGV vehicles sector?

Although diesel engines are much cleaner than they used to be, they’ll never be able to compete with an electric truck. That being said, the death of diesel is a long way off, as there are many applications where the diesel engine is still the best approach.

Plus from a commercial perspective, if you own a large fleet, it will take a good amount of time and money to replace them all with electric vehicles.

Can hydrogen be used alongside battery power?

“There has been a tendency for the automotive sector to view batteries and hydrogen as competing technologies when they are in fact highly complementary” - Dr Gareth Hinds, Science Area Leader in Electrochemistry at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

Hydrogen can be used as a fuel cell for transport, essentially acting as a power station, to create electricity.

The benefit of this is that vehicles can be re-fuelled in the same way that a diesel engine is re-fuelled, i.e. via a pump. This process only takes minutes, rather than hours, when compared to electric charging.

Future developments in decarbonising transport across Europe

There are a number of developments in the pipeline that will help increase the roll-out of green and electric vehicles:


  • Euro 7 emissions standards – The EU is currently weighing up whether to monitor emissions from cars, force hybrid cars to drive in the electric-only mode in certain locations, and include checks as to whether car are meeting emission standards as part of their MOT.
  • Automated cruise control – By adjusting the engine, acceleration and braking of a vehicle, you’re able to optimise the energy consumption and fuel efficiency.
  • Electric batteries – Continued investment means an increase in innovation with batteries, which in turn will lead to prices coming down, and the availability and choice for consumers going up.
  • Dedicated motorway lanes – Research is being carried out looking at introducing dedicated lanes on motorways for electric vehicles, with potentially having a power cable above or below the road (in a similar way to how a tram operates), so vehicles won’t need to be fitted with large batteries to make long journeys.
  • New business models – Working towards subscription-based services so consumers (whether businesses or individuals) can buy access to a vehicle (or millage or tonnage), rather than being the vehicle outright themselves. This could potentially mean the consumer could buy directly from the manufacturer, potentially making it a cost-effective and attractive consideration.

Working towards zero carbon transport will not be tackled by the UK alone; we need to build on our international reputation and partnerships in science, research and innovation - working together to develop and deliver solutions.

Contact us

If you’re considering making the switch to electric vehicles then we can support you throughout the entire process. For further details or advice please contact Eddie Flanagan in our energy team.

Our energy team is ranked as a Leading Firm in the Legal 500 2021 edition.

Our updated guide to recovery and resilience covers everything you need to navigate your business out of lockdown, unlock your potential and make way for a brighter future. Further advice in relation to COVID-19 can be found on our dedicated coronavirus resource hub.

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Guest author

Simon Villanueva
Legal Director, Volvo Trucks

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