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Leading the way: How DfT’s history tells of its journey to net zero

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The Department for Transport (DfT) has re-committed to plans to ‘lead the way’ in the decarbonisation of transport with a 2030 target for central government fleet electrification.

It’s a move that could see faith in the department restored – providing the target is met – after it has been repeatedly criticised for lacklustre policies. In recent times it has been criticised by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) for reforms to the plug-in car grant that saw support limited, as well as for the 2040 phase out of conventional cars, which the CCC recommended should be at least 2035 in its net zero report.

It was accused of ‘going rogue’ on climate change by environmental activists Friends of the Earth for pursuing road building programmes that weren't consistent with the Climate Change Act.

However, this commitment appears to, in light of net zero, signal a shift towards a department that wants to move on from decisions of the past and tackle decarbonisation from the inside out.

At the front of the march

This is not the first instance of the government looking to lead by example when it comes to decarbonisation.

In 2014, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Cabinet Office revealed plans to install 1GW of solar on government estate. It formed a key part of the 2014 UK Solar Strategy and would have presented the government as being involved in and supporting the transition towards clean energy.

Eighteen months later and the government had yet to complete any rooftop solar installs. Then in 2018, sister publication Solar Power Portal revealed the truth: the programme was closed in 2015 without even a whisper of an announcement.

As the country looked to decarbonise, the government made less of a U-turn and more of a betrayal of the values it claimed – and still claims – to hold.

In transport, things have been equally rocky. In July 2018, the DfT’s Road to Zero strategy arrived, brand new, shiny and reflective of its industry: a little delayed.

It detailed measures the DfT would take in the decarbonisation of transport, including the continuation of the plug-in car grant until at least 2020, with the level of support maintained until October that year.

And when October rolled around, much like other government subsidies, deep cuts were made. Of the three categories eligible for grants, two had them removed altogether. The remaining category had it reduced from £4,500 to £3,500.

Road to Zero was also lacking in other ways. Whilst the discussion of EVs centred around increasing deployment of charging infrastructure and encouraging adoption, there was no significant discussion of what impact a large increase in uptake of EVs would have, despite it being a reoccurring conversation in the industry itself.

Change on the horizon

Things may finally be looking up for the UK government, however, with a slew of policy decisions pushing towards decarbonisation. For transport, the requirement for all EV chargers to be smart from July and the newly-launched ‘Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy’ document reviewing UK transport laws, are all steps in the right direction.

And the introduction of legislation for achieving net zero by 2050 is arguably a leap in the right direction, however reluctantly it may have been made.

But as of yet, there has been very little in the way of policy to achieve this. Chris Grayling’s re-issued commitment to electrifying the central government fleet is welcome, but a drop in the ocean compared to what will need to be done to ensure a completely net zero country.

Emission from transport are the largest of any sector in the UK, and heat and transport are often cited as the sectors most challenging and most in need of decarbonisation. The calls for government to step-up are coming in quick succession, from energy giants writing to ask for support for a network of ultra-rapid chargers to the International Energy Agency recommending the UK ramp up its investment into transport and heat.

So electrifying central government’s fleet is a step, yes. But to reach net zero, Grayling needs to dig out his running shoes because his department has a long way to go.

Editorial

Alice Grundy Junior reporter, Current±

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