Towards a net zero carbon future: the true scale of the transport challenge

Members will have seen many articles and papers about the carbon footprint of transport and understood that the challenge of achieving the government legislated commitment of net zero by 2050 is huge.

But just how huge?

The Transport Sector has started a piece of work to assess the true scale of the challenge so that the IET can add its authoritative voice to the national debate in time for COP26.

We need your help!

We all see a future of vehicles powered by green electricity where operational carbon can be minimised – electric trains, cars and planes, and potentially hydrogen-powered shipping, and possibly lorries.

That though is turning out to look like the easy bit!

We have set out to establish the true whole-life carbon implications of moving to net-zero so that we can offer policy advice to decision-makers who otherwise could adopt actions with the best of intentions but which could actually damage the planet further.

If that sounds alarmist, consider a few factors which go way beyond operation.

Research in Europe suggests that the carbon embedded in mining raw materials, manufacturing and transporting a new battery for say an electric SUV is so large that it would have to run upwards of 120,000 miles on 100% green electricity before its lifetime carbon footprint was less than a new petrol version of the same vehicle! 

Electrification of railways requires many hundreds of tonnes of steel and concrete – two materials that dominate the statistics of intensive carbon in production.

Rapid movement to scrap existing vehicles long before their time may not be the best way to minimise our total footprint in the coming decade or two.

Especially where the “sunk cost” of carbon has already been expended in producing interiors, bodies, tyres etc., which would not be recycled without further carbon-intensive processes.

Or it may be, we really don’t know.

Transport infrastructure maintenance and renewal are high carbon activities – think of railway ballast or concrete sleeper and steel rail production, or highway resurfacing.

And that is before considering the carbon expended in creating new electricity production (steel and concrete in offshore wind farms and distribution networks?), roadside charging networks and transfer facilities such as ports, depots and stations, and so on. 

You can see this is a vast topic!

Our aim is not to “drain the ocean” in a few months but to add a voice of engineering insight to the debate, demolish potential myths and legends and suggest some sensible ways forward.

We don’t expect to achieve pinpoint accuracy in our investigation, but we can be honest about that.

We want to establish some genuine truths and point to where more work or funding should be focussed.