The government needs to act swiftly to decide which zero-emission route HGVs must take if the UK is to achieve ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets.

New recommendations set by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) call for the UK to speed-up its decarbonisation plans to enable the UK to achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2050; the UK is currently aiming for an 80% reduction on 1990 levels by this point as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008.

Decarbonising transport will play a significant part in any reduction. The CCC highlighted that transport is now the largest source of UK GHG emissions (23%), with levels having risen between 2013-2017.

It urged the UK to bring forward its plan for all new cars and vans to be zero-emission by 2035, five years ahead of the current target. It also believe buses will be able to keep pace with this transition.

However HGVs are harder to decarbonise, the CCC acknowledged, and it is essential that the government puts in place clear policies, technology trials and infrastructure plans to enable the switch from diesel.

To achieve net zero GHG emissions from road transport by 2050, deployment of zero-emission HGVs must accelerate to nearly 100% of sales by 2040, the CCC added.

This places both electrification (particularly for smaller rigid lorries) and hydrogen (more likely for long-haul) in the mix.

No silver bullet

“The best solution is not yet clear - hydrogen or electrification or a combination of the two,” said the CCC. “Technological progress is likely to be driven globally and some co-ordination will be required with connected markets in Ireland and mainland Europe.”

The report added: “The government will need to make a decision on the required infrastructure for zero-emission HGVs, with international coordination, in the mid-2020s ready for deployment in the late 2020s and throughout the 2030s.

“To help prepare for that, trials of zero-emission HGVs and associated refuelling infrastructure are now needed.”

It added that vehicle and fuel taxation from the 2020s onward should be designed to incentivise commercial operators to purchase and operate zero-emission HGVs.

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A hydrogen-based switchover would require 800 refuelling stations to be built by 2050 and electrification would need 90,000 depot-based chargers for overnight charging

The capital cost for such infrastructure could be in the region of £3bn to £16bn, depending on which technology is used.

CCC's technical report showed that hydrogen refuelling stations were currently the cheapest option, whereas installing ultra-rapid chargers to refuel HGVs during the driver's rest breaks appears to be the most expensive for infrastructure costs alone.

"Initial work to look at the costs of infrastructure, vehicles and fuel costs indicates that hydrogen, electrification (accompanied by on-road overhead wires for HGVs to charge as they drive) and electrification (accompanied by ultra-fast chargers) are all likely to be cost saving by 2050, compared to continued use of diesel," it stated.

However it added that "there are large uncertainties and it is too early to assess which technology is most cost-effective at this stage".

LowCVP MD Andy Eastlake said: "This is not going to be easy and while government has a critical role to play it cannot deliver this target alone.

“Meeting the targets outlined today calls for an unprecedented coming together and a step change in ambition of all of us in this shared endeavour; individuals, community groups, businesses, civil society in all its forms, as well as government.

"Only through working together, in partnership can these vital goals be met.”