In its 2023 ‘Progress report to Parliament’, delivered in June this year, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) warned of a “lack of urgency” in government policy to achieve the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and made over 300 recommendations to speed up progress

.The committee is an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets and to report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking at the Zemo Partnership annual conference just before the report was published, CCC CEO Chris Stark said HGVs are not expected to decarbonise as quickly as light commercials, but reductions in van emissions are way behind the schedule set by the CCC to decarbonise before the 2050 deadline.

“Surface transport needs to cut its emissions by 75% on 2019 levels by 2035,” said Stark. “That is ambitious but achievable.”

In October the DfT finally announced the winners of its long-awaited £200m zero emission HGV and infrastructure demonstrator programme which will fund four collaborative projects involving over 300 battery electric HGVs, 60 hydrogen fuel cell HGVs and the network of 57 recharging and refuelling sites needed to operate them across Great Britain. The projects will be independently monitored with regular dissemination of progress.

Eoin Devane, senior transport analyst at the CCC, told MT this was a “promising step forward”.

“It has taken quite a while to get to this stage, which has frustrated us a little bit,” he went on. “But it’s good that we are seeing this funding come through.”

Devane agreed with the many operators who struggle to see the short-term viability of large numbers of battery electric or hydrogen powered HGVs. “There are two different timescales going on here,” he said. “We are clearly a long way ahead on the car front compared with the truck front. Vans are a mysterious somewhere in the middle and while there is some progress they are a way behind where we are in the car market.

“When I speak to manufacturers there seems to be a lot more confidence in where we are going with vans than trucks in the short term at least.”

 While former prime minister Boris Johnson MP delayed the ban on sales of non-zero emission cars and vans from 2030 to 2035, the zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate remains in place. This requires 70% of new vans sold in Great Britain to be zero emission by 2030, increasing to 100% by 2035. So far in 2023, however, less than 6% of new van sales were electric.

“We were reassured that the ZEV mandate was confirmed as that does the really heavy lifting in delivering this stuff,” said Devane. “We have heard nothing about delaying the phase out dates for heavy trucks. We have said that clarity and consistency in messaging to investors and operators is vital.”

So sales of new non-zero emission trucks under 26 tonnes will still be banned in 2035 and sales of heavier vehicles banned in 2040. There is however no equivalent to the ZEV mandate for trucks and one of the CCC recommendations for government in its June report was: “Once the ZEV mandate regulations for cars and vans are implemented, begin consulting on an appropriate regulatory mechanism for delivering the ZEV transition for heavy-duty vehicles including HGVs and buses.”

According to Zemo, “HGVs contribute around 20% of all UK domestic transport emissions and are acknowledged as a particularly challenging sector to decarbonise, with DfT data showing their share of emissions hasn’t changed since 1990”.

“The short term goal is delivering on the switch of the light duty sector but we know that trucks make up a disproportionately large share of emissions,” said Devane. “The biggest bang for buck is decarbonisng a truck compared with decarbonising a car. Just because it is a bit further down the line that is no reason to take our eyes off the ball on the truck front.

“Our latest analysis shows a transition for trucks that largely happens in the 2030s. So it is not a problem right now that fleets are looking at buying one [electric truck] rather than 50, but it will be a problem if by the time we get to the 2030s they still don’t have the confidence that they can buy 50.

“Some of that might rely on markets moving like they have for cars and some might rely on government incentives in the early years. There is a plug-in truck grant at the moment [£30,000 per vehicle] and some have called for that to be increased and to focus not just on the vehicle but also on the connections they need in depots.

“Some of will also rely on learning from these trials to see what use cases these things work for and addressing any barriers that come up.”

While the carrot in the form of subsidies or other financial incentives is one way to drive the market, the other is in the form of a stick which might take the form of higher duty on diesel or some sort of carbon emissions trading scheme for road transport.

The EU already has its Emissions Trading System (ETS) covering industry, electricity generation, aviation and – from 2024 – the maritime sector. In 2027 it is proposing to extend the scheme (ETS 2) to cover road transport and buildings but the UK government has not yet indicated if it will align itself with this scheme, which will be an ‘upstream’ system that regulates fuel suppliers rather than households and drivers. The goal of ETS 2 is a 42% reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 2005.

“As far as I’m aware the UK does not have any similar proposals – yet,” said Devane. “If the EU did do something the UK would have to think about how it aligns or not with it.

“When it comes to fuel duty we haven’t done much analysis on it but we say in general terms that the wider fiscal system needs to be designed to incentivise the behaviors we need to see to reach net zero. Things like cuts to fuel duty frustrate us and go in the opposite direction.”

The CCC report made two recommendations regarding refuelling infrastructure: “Produce an infrastructure strategy that sets out how the transition of heavy-duty vehicles to ZEVs will be enabled. The strategy should consider options for depot charging, en-route ultra-rapid charging and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure;” and “Work collaboratively with Ofgem, distribution network operators and local government to develop a clearer and simpler process for delivering new and upgraded connections to the electricity grid. This process should include consideration of local demand forecasts to allow planning ahead to avoid bottlenecks, considering demand for both public charging stations and electrification of van and HGV depots.”

“[Decarbonising trucks] will rely on getting those grid connections and the planning process all right ahead of time,” said Devane. “We, the SMMT and various operators have called for some clarity on the government’s strategy for infrastructure to support the zero emission transition for trucks.

“It was promising that we saw a call for evidence come out [in late October] hopefully starting this journey. In the government response to our progress report one comment was they are expecting to produce an infrastructure strategy sometime next year. Early next year would be good and it will need to address both electrification and hydrogen options to be technology neutral.”

While the government has created a £1bn Rapid Charging Fund to help build a public EV charging network, with a privatised electricity supply and distribution industry the thorny question of who should pay for improved network connections to enable in-depot charging of electric truck fleets remains a key barrier to widespread adoption. As well as the high cost, waiting lists for network upgrades are growing longer.

“There are two problems here,” said Devane. “There is the timing and there is the cost and both need to be addressed. If you look at the car market we have a lot of confidence that we will get there as we have seen a lot of progress.

“In the truck market, most manufacturers have come up with shorter range [electric] vehicles as a first step to developing something that is commercially viable. We are already seeing some of these on the roads and I have a degree of confidence in that technology. Once you take running costs into account there will also be a strong business case once you get to a stage where they are at mass market levels.

“But the infrastructure is probably my biggest concern. It is a different concern from cars which is mainly about a public network. For trucks, while there is a role for public networks with certain types of operations, it is mainly about depots, and we expect that two thirds of use cases can be powered by depot charging. When we have operators who want to make the switch we don’t want to deter them by telling them it’s going to take 18 months and cost millions of pounds.

“This is by no means just about trucks. We are looking at electrifying much of our economy and heavy industry has very similar concerns. We have said that government’s main role is to get the right people together and get them talking - people like Ofgem [the energy regulator], the future system operator that presumably will have a new name at some point, the DNOs [distribution network operators who run the local electricity networks], local authorities and representatives of the relevant industries.

“There needs to be a more proactive planning process to think ahead about what is going to be needed in 2025 and 2026 and then turn it around at pace. That’s the governance piece that government can bring. Then there is the financial piece and here there are various views. A recent report by Transport and the Environment talked about extending the Rapid Charging Fund to cover electrification of depots.

“In the government response to our progress report we were somewhat heartened that they talked about working with Ofgem to develop an action plan which would be ready ‘shortly’. Assuming shortly is relatively soon that could be promising.”

While both the government and the CCC remain neutral on the role of hydrogen in decarbonising road freight transport, other views differ widely. Some see few alternatives for heavy long distance transport while others see hydrogen’s low well-to-wheel efficiency as a waste of scarce renewable electricity.

In its report the CCC recommended that government should: “Accelerate the development of new business models for hydrogen transportation and storage infrastructure, with a view to keeping options open for larger scale hydrogen use by 2030.”

The latest zero emissions road freight trials include hydrogen fuel cells but exclude hydrogen internal combustion engines (HICE) and biofuels because the DfT does not recognise these as truly zero emissions. Some proponents of HICE, including industrial heavyweights JCB and Bosch, believe it could have an intermediate role to play in reducing emissions in the short to medium term while battery and fuel cell technology becomes commercially viable.

“Our analysis does not include any role for HICE,” said Devane. “The developments we see are that the majority of [zero emission] trucks will be [battery] electric, and that hydrogen fuel cells are likely to be suitable for most of the rest in the timescales we need to see.

“We will review that, but I don’t expect our view to change. In the medium and long term the focus needs to be on fully zero tailpipe options. In the short term there is a role for biofuels as a transitional technology that can happen today but what we don’t want to see is significant risk of technological lock-in with big investments in infrastructure to support hydrogen combustion within fleets.

“That risks becoming a stranded asset in 10 or 15 years or locks them into an option which is either cost or emissions sub-optimal.”

For hydrogen in any form to be truly zero emissions it needs to be produced from renewable electricity and despite the government granting new licences for oil and gas exploration the CCC believes moving to 100% renewable electricity still achievable.

“We think decarbonising the power system by 2035 is feasible albeit challenging,” said Devane. “Going beyond that is something the government needs to have a look at and tie in with its wider hydrogen strategy which they have said is coming in 2026. We have said it needs to be sooner.”