The decarbonisation of transport: The next step

As the UK continues to set new generation records, it’s safe to say that the decarbonisation of the energy sector is well underway. The next aim? To reduce the carbon footprint of transport.

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According to REN21, a global policy advisory body, transport accounts for up to 33% of global energy demand, and Parliament Magazine, a publication on politics and policy in the EU, finds that “transport accounts for about 25% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions”.

So, clearly there is some work to be done when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint associated with transport…


Moving people

The good news is that the change needed in this arena is already picking up pace. Thanks to rapid technological development and lowering costs, it has become cheaper to manufacture electric vehicles (EVs), which will have a leading role in  decarbonising transport (as well as presenting exciting opportunities for further grid decarbonisation).

As public awareness of the health consequences of poor air quality has increased, EVs have also been touted as a solution to the problem of air pollution in cities caused by tradition petroleum vehicles.

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However, the transport problem is large scale. Electrifying only cars will not be enough to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the global transport sector, though it will go some way.

Electrifying trains can make (and in the UK, has made) a significant impact; in the Netherlands, one rail company powers its trains entirely with electricity generated by wind power. In 2020, the UK will get its first hydrogen-fuelled train. Another alternative is the use of a Maglev rail system, as seen in Japan and China, though these magnetic technologies come with significant costs.

Aviation accounts for a 11% of the energy demand in transport, with a 2% share of global greenhouse gas emissions. The use of lighter materials, more efficient engines and an improved design process can all come together to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, as can the use of biofuels, which is limited as yet.

At the other end of the spectrum – the local scale rather than the global – there are more efficient ways of moving people through cities than with cars. By turning to electrified or hybrid public transport, or through promoting cycling and walking as alternatives, cities can reduce their environmental impact.


Moving things

The transport economy is not just comprised of people, but of goods too. These goods move around just like people, and this contributes massively to the carbon footprint of transport. There are innovative solutions which exist, and more which will come about in the near future.

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In early 2018, a Dutch company announced its plans to introduce electric barges which will operate from Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp and will be capable of navigating the canals of those cities.

The hope is that these low-emission barges will carry freight that was previously transported by lorry, reducing the carbon footprint of the goods moved around.

According to statistics quoted in the Guardian, only 6.7% of freight is moved by waterway across the EU, with 74.9% moved by road. This new technology could begin a shift towards more sustainable way of transporting freight.

And at the other end of this scale, conceptual designs have been drawn up for environmentally-friendly ships which will traverse oceans instead of canals.

But currently the technology exists which could allow freighters to reduce their environmental impact. The International Transport Forum (ITF) has published a report outlining the success Sweden has had in reducing the carbon footprint of its maritime fleet.


The shift towards electrified transport will put extra demand on the energy system, and powering electric vehicles using fossil fuels is counterproductive when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

Instead, the success of transport decarbonisation relies on the continued success of renewable technologies in energy generation.