Planes, trains, buses and automobiles – why going green will be more important than ever once we beat coronavirus

by James McFarlane | 30th March 2020

No one is flying at the moment, and unless you’re a key worker you won’t be driving or taking the train or bus either. While we are all missing the freedom, the chances are you’re beginning to appreciate the quieter skies and the cleaner air. Indeed, the environmental effects of the global shut down are just beginning to come through, with estimates that global CO2 emissions could fall by at least 5% this year as a result of the pandemic. In the UK, newly released data from the University of York shows levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide pollution have fallen by more than a third in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff.

As much as we welcome this respite, no one is forgetting that the situation is temporary. When the economy revs back into action – as we all hope it will – emissions are going to jump. Factories will reopen, workers will return to their jobs, two thirds of whom will travel each day by car. And our uphill journey to net-zero emissions remains exactly where it was before – achievable, but very much in the distance.

Transport is the largest contributor to green-house gas emissions in the UK, accounting for over 28%, and ahead of energy supply (23%), business (18%) and agriculture (8%). The Government knows this, and just last week published its strategy to decarbonise transport, which did not receive the attention it deserved due to the evolving Covid-19 situation. The full Transport Decarbonisation Plan will not be known until the Autumn when the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps hopes to unveil it ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. However, early indications show that it will be both radical and ambitious, and will rely on a combination of changing habits and harnessing new technology.

The private sector is already ahead of the game with this. In aviation, the latest narrow-body planes deliver up to 50% lower emissions than their predecessors thanks to Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan engine technology that was 20 years in the making. Sadly the biennial showcase at Farnborough has been cancelled this summer, but we remember well the electric prototypes that stole the headlines at last year’s Paris Air Show, and while their delivery may be some time away it shows the industry is already innovating seriously.

Meanwhile on Britain’s railways, HydroFLEX, the UK’s first hydrogen train was successfully trailed in a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and Porterbrook last year. Buses also have their part to play, and just last month in the absence of a government target, National Express, one of the UK’s largest operators announced it would never buy another diesel bus as it launched its ambition for emission-free bus operations by 2030.

However, the nub of it all rests on the private car which accounts for over two thirds of all journeys, be they for work or leisure. Reaching our net-zero target by 2050 will require more than just switching to electric vehicles – we’ll need to replace entire journeys with buses and trains, or simply walk or cycle. Just as the global shut down has forced us to reconsider ways of working, now is the time to reassess how we travel.

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James McFarlane

James advises a range of organisations in financial services and the industrial, leisure, transport and utilities sectors.

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