Pathways to deep decarbonization of the passenger transport sector in the United Kingdom
A key challenge for transport policy in the UK is the Government’s own domestic climate legislation, which mandates “at least” an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2050. Accounting for various demographic, economic, and technological trends as well as the pattern of demand across different sectors, past analysis reveals that achieving this target translates into a requirement for the carbon intensity of transport to decline by around 70% on average by 2050. This implies a need for radical solutions over the next 20-30 years in order to achieve the kind of structural changes in the energy system that can meet the goal of deep decarbonisation.
The analysis presented in this report is intended to support engagement with transport experts and decision makers regarding actionable policies towards transport emissions reductions in the UK context. Rather than pursuing a narrow focus on technological solutions alone, the analysis explicitly seeks to uncover and explore other important determinants of transport demand and emissions such as changes to demographic and economic structure, urban planning, culture, lifestyles and values. This is because past research and engagement with energy system stakeholders in the UK shows clearly that experts view the social dimension of energy use to be at least as important as technological change.
We describe two new scenarios that provide distinctive visions of how passenger transport could evolve in the future, driven by rapid technological progress, changes to societal mobility trends, and the requirement to transition towards low or net-zero energy systems. Both of the scenarios presented achieve similar levels of decarbonisation by 2050, but take very different pathways towards that destination. The two scenario narratives, which focus on passenger transport, are:
- Freedom to Roam (F2R): a future where new communication and transport technologies reinforce existing societal tendencies towards maximizing individual comfort, convenience and autonomy, and economic activity remains concentrated in existing centres of power.
- No Place Like Home (NPLH): a future characterized by a focus on localism, where new technologies are harnessed for the purposes of strengthening communities, facilitating the sharing of pooled resources and assets, and for diversifying regional economic activities so that multi-polar centres of education, leisure and commerce emerge across the country.
These two scenarios embody quite different visions of the passenger transport future. F2R is very much supply side focused with patterns of mobility demand remaining similar to those seen today, rooted in the development of new technologies, notably autonomous vehicles, that strengthen the motivation for car use, due to convenience and meeting the demands of mobile lifestyles. NPLH, on the other hand, sees technology development shift mobility trends in another direction, towards a sharing services model that is also built around greater use of other modes of transport, particularly in metropolitan areas.
For both scenarios, a shift to electro-mobility is key to keeping emissions reductions in line with climate policy targets. This underscores the importance of UK action to ensure that a zero-carbon electricity supply is achieved in the 2030s. For mobility transitions to develop in the direction of the future imagined in the F2R scenario, an essential precondition would be the successful early development of highly autonomous vehicles (i.e. SAE J3016 Levels 4 and 5). Mobility transitions in the direction of the NPLH scenario may require government to take a more active role in regional spatial planning. Finally, both scenarios arrive in 2050 with the transport sector emissions being dominated almost entirely by international aviation emissions. Achieving currently legislated national targets for 2050 requires that further options in both energy supply and demand will need to be explored if the UK is to move towards a net-zero emissions position in line with the Paris Agreement in the second half of the century.