The “centrality of freight” to the UK economy is “sometimes forgotten in politics”, transport minister Jesse Norman MP admitted this week.

Addressing the Logistics UK Future Logistics conference at ITT Hub in Farnborough on 11 May, Norman, who has been responsible for decarbonisation and technology at the DfT since October 2022, paid tribute to the logistics sector and its efforts to cut carbon emissions.

“It is hard to imagine anything that would be successful without the movement of goods behind it,” he said. “I salute you for making all that happen and allowing supplies to be made and demand to be met.”

He reminded the audience that transport remained the UK’s largest emitter of carbon but that the government had to take a “joined-up attitude” towards industry, housing and all the other sources of carbon emissions on the road to net zero in 2050.

“We have to take a lead in my department because it is such a national priority,” he said. “That goal is one in which the transport and logistics sector has a critical role to play.”

Despite calls from Logistics UK at the launch of its 2032 EV report for more government support for the logistics sector to help it decarbonise, Norman insisted that his tour of the exhibition hall had thrown up plenty of evidence that government interventions were working.

“It was great to see how many businesses have had support of one kind or another, whether that is serving markets that have been funded or subsidised in terms of the take up of vehicles or they have been recipients of Innovate UK investment or they have been supported by a regulatory framework that is nudging people towards lower emissions,” he said. “The one that will have caught your attention most recently is the zero emission vehicle mandate for cars and vans that takes effect from January 2024. I’m thrilled about that as it’s the first and best of its type in the world as it establishes a framework for private investors.

“If you know those vehicles are going to be on the road and you can see the curve in front of you because it’s in legislation you can start to invest against that.”

Turning to HGVs, Norman said they contributed 20% of all transport emissions in the UK in 2021 and this was a “serious issue” that the government was determined to address.

“We already have the phase-out dates of 2035 for non-zero emissions trucks below 26 tonnes and 2040 for all new HGVs,” he said. “We recognise that those targets are going to require a lot of public coordination and private investment to achieve. It’s important that we be supportive and encouraging but not disrespectful of the needs various sectors have to make that transition in a way that works commercially for them.

“We don’t want to be too quick to force change for the wrong vehicles at the wrong time.”

The DfT has made a call for evidence in support of exemptions from the phase-out date for trucks under 26 tonnes and Norman pledged to keep talking to the industry about the implementation of this policy.

“We will take your views on board as the details get finalised,” he said. “As with cars and vans we will need to adapt our regulatory framework to ensure the phase-out dates for HGVs can be brought into legal effect. We will be consulting extensively on this in due course.”

Norman said the government wanted to make sure that new alternatively-fuelled vehicles were commercially viable and that was one of the aims of the Road Vehicles (Authorised Weight) (Amendment) Regulations that are due to come into force later this year. This provides for a weight limit increase of a flat 2 tonnes for certain zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) and 1 tonne for alternatively fuelled vehicles (AFVs), though the maximum weight limit of 44 tonnes will remain in force.

“Those allow early adopters to reduce the payload penalty sometimes associated with these heavier drive trains,” said the minister. “Everyone needs certainty to invest in these technologies.”

The government is supporting the £200m Zero Emission Road Freight (ZERFT) demonstration programme which will see “hundreds of new zero-emission HGVs” tested on UK roads.

“We are planning on announcing the winners of the battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell competitions in the not-too-distant future,” said Norman. “Decarbonisation will need different forms of infrastructure and nowhere is that more obvious than zero-emission HGVs. If we are going to get the demonstrator programme up and running we are going to need energy infrastructure that works to power these trucks.

"That is well advanced for cars and vans but we know we need the same for trucks and we will be publishing a zero-emission HGV infrastructure strategy in due course. That is designed to give some certainty to the sector to start unlocking private investment.

“We will be engaged in an extensive stakeholder engagement programme and will work with the Freight Energy Forum that has just been established and we want to take people with us as we set the strategic direction in this sector.”