Last reviewed 10 December 2019

Laura King looks at the direction transportation is going to reduce its carbon footprint, and examines some new ways of conducting business in order to combat the climate emergency.

The climate crisis is growing and reaching momentum. At the beginning of November 2019, 11,000 scientists endorsed a statement published in the journal BioScience that said that people of the world faced “untold suffering due to the climate crisis”. They reiterated that: “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live,” going on to say that this “entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions”.

With the latest greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets set by the Government and increasing societal pressure to face up to the climate emergency, businesses have a key role to play in this transformation. To do this, business models need to move away from short-term thinking and towards longer-term sustainable models.

The transport sector – whether that involves moving people or freight – is one of the UK’s largest sources of GHG emissions. Provisional results from the UK government on emissions data indicates that the transport sector accounts for an estimated 33% of carbon dioxide emissions – a large proportion of which is from road travel.

For many businesses, emissions of GHGs from transport will be one of their main considerations when considering how they can reduce their carbon footprint.

Green travel policies

Many organisations will already adopt a green travel policy that will, among other things:

  • reduce the amount of travel conducted in the first instance (for example, by using technology to conduct online meetings, or by setting out considerations staff need to make before deciding to travel)

  • use internal systems and policies to manage travel (for example, requiring sign off from managers)

  • provide more opportunities for active travel (for example, making provisions to encourage walking or cycling).

CCC recommendations

However, with transport representing such high emissions figures, more needs to be done. It is therefore no surprise that the Committee on Climate Change has made a number of recommendations to curb transport’s impact on the climate, including:

  • bringing forward the ban on sale of conventional vehicles

  • setting stretching targets for CO2 emissions for cars, vans and HGVs

  • implementing policies to promote cleaner vehicles

  • addressing the decline in bus usage and promoting more walking and cycling

  • the addition of shipping and aviation to Climate Change Act targets.

In its latest response to the recommendations, the UK Government stressed that it has a number of initiatives in place to encourage the uptake of low-emission vehicles, as well as plans to improve walking and cycling in cities. However, it also stated that it “recognises the urgency of stepping up the pace of progress”.

As part of this, it has begun the development of a new Transport Decarbonisation Plan which is being led by the Department for Transport (DfT). A report setting out the nature of the challenge is expected later in 2019, with the final document due to be completed in 2020. The plan will consider how technology can be implemented to make major changes to how both people and goods move around the UK.

Is low-carbon transport the answer?

Already, many organisations are looking to reduce emissions by adopting low-carbon transport. Many companies are seriously reviewing the impact of their fleet and looking for new solutions. For example, in November 2019, the John Lewis Partnership announced that from 2021, 300 of its delivery vehicles will be powered by renewable biomethane made from manure slurry – a fuel that is considered to be carbon-neutral.

However, although the Government’s current strategy, as well as wider analysis of current trends, indicate that personal cars will continue to dominate the transport sector, if nothing changes this will ultimately lead to more of the problems we see today: congestion (resulting in lost time, as well as lost income), more accidents, as well as the problems of air pollution and GHG emissions.

The current focus on low-carbon vehicles will go some way to solve many of these problems – but certainly not all. Congestion, for example, will only worsen as more economic growth means more cars on the road, and low-carbon fleets are unlikely to help if companies continue to adopt a silo mentality to vehicle use. Because of this, it is imperative that low-carbon technology is integrated with other solutions such as initiatives to reduce transport use, as well as new ways to connect and share vehicles, and more efficient road networks.

New business models

Over and above low-carbon vehicles and good travel policies, there are a number of novel business models that are being used to drive down GHG emissions from transport. Some of the concepts are more developed than others; whether they are seen on a large scale remains to be seen, but with the current impetus for change and a new plan expected from the DfT, it is probable that models such as these will begin to take hold.

Mobility-as-a-Service

Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) is a model of transport that shifts the emphasis away from personal forms of transport. In an environment where MaaS is operational, a MaaS operator would provide a range of transport options (including elements such as public transport, ride-sharing, bikes, taxis or car-sharing) through one platform. The user would be able to pick the best option for any given journey they need to take.

For businesses, this potential new service offers door-to-door transport solutions that have the potential to help optimise, and better budget for, business travel.

Urban Consolidation Centres

With the upsurge in online shopping and a growing expectation that goods should arrive within a couple of days, there is a growing problem of a fragmented delivery service, with multiple delivery companies travelling the same routes to deliver to customers. Urban Consolidation Centres are one solution to this problem, whereby large distribution centres are found on the edge of urban centres, from which the ‘last mile’ of delivery is co-ordinated, reducing the number of delivery vehicles needed, as well as creating a business model whereby low-carbon vehicles are able to be used effectively in urban centres.

Smart logistics

Better control over assets and the logistics of transportation is key to smart logistics, and with this comes an efficient management of resources and improved logistics.

One example is technologies that allow real-time visibility of inventory to help businesses better able to manage their stocks. For example, many customers now expect to be able to use both online and physical locations to collect, pay for, and return items. Such demands mean that tracking items and managing a store’s inventory is increasingly complex – and potentially quite carbon-costly if it is not done well.

Similarly, better management of the last mile of delivery to a customer means that it is less likely that a customer is not in to receive a delivery – a problem that is all too common. With it now possible for customers to be able to ‘see’ where their delivery is, the last mile goes from a potentially problematic operation involving multiple delivery attempts, to one that is much more streamlined - and with the added benefit of an improved user experience.

Summary

Low-carbon technologies are the main priority for the Government, and businesses too are looking to embrace these technologies as an essential tool in their road to net zero. However, these technologies need to be adopted alongside new ways of doing business if the world is to truly move towards a more sustainable future.