17 November 2020
The UK has affirmed its commitment to becoming a carbon-neutral economy in law; the Climate Change Act 2008 now includes the target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 2050. While the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions are falling steadily, having decreased by 39% since 1990, the transport sector still has a long way to go before it reaches its goal of complete decarbonisation, says Zoe McLernon, Policy Manager of Multimodal at Logistics UK.
Here, we outline the prospects for decarbonisation in the UK across three freight transport modes: rail, air, and road.
While air transport only represents around 2% of global CO2 emissions, the air freight sector is predicted to grow at least 5% a year until 2050, although estimated growth may be downgraded owing to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The potential for increasing emissions, at a time when governments around the world are committed to emissions reductions, remains high. And as these environmental issues become more acute, airlines – working in conjunction with government – will need to start offering more advanced carbon-reduction solutions, while still providing value for money, growth and customer satisfaction across the supply chain.
UK airlines are already establishing themselves as leading examples of this shift to increased sustainability. In November 2019, EasyJet became the world’s first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its entire network after announcing it would offset all jet fuel emissions. However, initiatives such as this are only interim solutions and industry must seek longer-term measures.
As a result, British Airways is continuing to develop new, fuel efficient aircraft and has signed a partnership agreement with renewable fuels company, Velocys. Together, the businesses aim to produce energy from waste plants, converting standard rubbish into renewable sustainable jet fuel to run their fleet, a first for the UK. The airline claims that using the fuel will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%, compared to the fossil-based equivalent, as well as cutting particulates from engine exhausts by up to 90% and sulphur dioxides almost entirely.
Logistics is a huge sector which is critical to the success of UK plc. Our name change from FTA to Logistics UK makes it more obvious to stakeholders, like policymakers, the media and young people looking to develop a career in logistics, who we are and what we do. It will strengthen our position and give us a great opportunity to achieve even more for members in the years to come. We have not changed our focus or the critical services, support and advice we provide to our members.
Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), a company based in the UK, is in the process of developing a helium-based, hybrid alternative to the traditional aircraft. By combining vectored thrust, aerodynamics and buoyant lift from helium, the aircraft is exceptionally fuel efficient – most of the airframe’s weight is countered by the helium’s buoyancy. Along with the use of sustainable fuels and electrifying fixed-winged aircrafts, HAVs present an innovative solution to support the decarbonisation of air the cargo sector. While the technology is in its early stages – and there are significant barriers to overcome – there is no doubt HAVs will make their mark on the aviation sector and will help us on our journey towards a zero-carbon future.
While many airlines are taking steps to decarbonise their operations, there is more to saving the planet than reducing aircraft emissions alone. Two other areas where aircraft companies can also make changes are in plastic-usage reduction and lower ground emissions.
As the lowest polluting form of freight transportation, increased use of rail will be vital to reach the UK’s environmental targets. The benefits of rail are clear: moving goods this way saves 76% carbon per freight tonne mile compared to road transportation. But with electric freight trains producing 60% less carbon emissions than diesel trains, there is room for improvement in this sector. In the view of Logistics UK, further electrification is the most viable solution for reducing rail emissions, particularly for freight, if the sector is to meet the government’s decarbonisation targets.
Electric freight trains are already an established technology in use on key stretches of railway, with around 10% of rail freight electrically hauled, principally on the West Coast Main Line. Increased use of electric freight trains could be implemented quickly to deliver significant carbon savings in just a couple of years.
Hydrogen powered trains present an alternative – or complementary – means to decarbonisation, but in comparison with electric trains, their development is in its infancy. Unlike electric trains, hydrogen trains are very rare; there are only two in active service in the world.
Established by Logistics UK, the Supply Chain Consultancy helps those working within supply chains with any issues or concerns they have and advises on strategic planning requirements. The team comprises some of the UK’s most experienced consultants. For more information on the service and how it can help you, including details of its Covid-19 Business Continuity Review offering, please visit logistics.org.uk/services/supply-chain-consultancy
With 58% of UK’s rail track still not electrified, hydrogen-powered trains could offer a more affordable way to decarbonise certain sections of the network; electrifying a single kilometre of track can cost £750,000 to £1million, according to a 2019 report by the Railway Industry Association (RIA). Owing to the high cost of electrification, hydrogen trains could be deployed on rural, little-used stretches of track, with electric trains continuing to take the lion’s share of the network.
However, while the benefits of hydrogen for passenger travel are very clear – the trains are quiet, quick, reliable and environmentally friendly – its applications for rail freight are less apparent. There is a concern that heavy freight trains, moving across vast stretches of the country, may not be suited to hydrogen in the long term. After all, these trains, weighed down by cargo, will require more power than passenger services, and hydrogen takes up much more volume than diesel. Hydrogen will no doubt have a positive impact on rail in the future, but we must remain mindful of the requirements of freight.
For the rail network to achieve full decarbonisation, its chosen energy source – either hydrogen or electricity – must be produced cleanly. While more than 40% of the UK’s rail network is electrified, until the electricity is derived from renewable sources – such as wind or solar – rail cannot claim to be zero-carbon.
The road transport sector has begun making great strides towards decarbonisation, with many businesses trialling alternatively fuelled vehicles and low carbon technologies. While the future of vans and other light commercial vehicles lies in electrification – in the view of Logistics UK – further investment and experimentation is needed before electric trucks can become a viable mass-market solution. The government also needs to invest in suitable infrastructure, including fast charging stations for electric vehicles across the road network and a nationwide upgrade of the National Grid.
In the meantime, the logistics sector has been devising and implementing its own emission-reduction strategies through the Logistics Emissions Reduction Scheme (LERS). Administered by Logistics UK, LERS is a free to join industry initiative to record, report and reduce carbon emissions from freight transport. The scheme aggregates its members’ fuel usage and business activity data to establish a carbon footprint. It is open to all companies with at least one commercial vehicle; for more information or to join the scheme please visit lers.org.uk
All forms of transport – rail, air, sea and road – have an important role to play in reducing the UK’s emissions. While the road ahead is challenging and complex, innovative solutions are paving the way to a carbon-neutral UK.
Logistics UK is one of the UK’s leading business groups, representing logistics businesses which are vital to keeping the UK trading, and more than seven million people directly employed in the making, selling and moving of goods. With Covid-19, Brexit, new technology and other disruptive forces driving change in the way goods move across borders and through the supply chain, logistics has never been more important to UK plc. Logistics UK supports, shapes and stands up for safe and efficient logistics, and is the only business group which represents the whole industry, with members from the road, rail, sea and air industries, as well as the buyers of freight services such as retailers and manufacturers whose businesses depend on the efficient movement of goods. For more information about the organisation and its work, including its ground-breaking research into the impacts of COVID-19 on the whole supply chain, please visit logistics.org.uk