Green transport: Solutions for the short, medium and long term. Guest article by Donna Rourke-Houguez

Posted on: 10 November, 2021

It’s Transport Day at COP26 today. Here, Donna Rourke-Houguez, who is a member of UCEM’s Sustainability Working Group, breaks up the issue of green transport into considerations for the short, medium and long term, advocating ways in which transportation can become more sustainable…

Donna Rourke-Houguez

Short term viewpoint: Have you seen the price of a UK rail ticket?!

A 10-year freeze on fuel duty combined with year-on-year increases in rail fares has priced even the most environmentally friendly of us off the train.

For me to travel the 88-mile round trip to my office costs me approximately £14 in fuel (yes, I measured!), compared with £73.80 to take the train. Even at the HMRC calculation of 45p per mile which takes into account all wear, tear and insurance, and is based on a higher fuel consumption than my car, the cost of the journey at £38.72 is still well below the cost of the rail option.

Even I, who questions every decision and always takes the more environmentally friendly option, and is very happy to forego the convenience, time saved and comfort of travelling in my own car, cannot justify this extra cost and I’m ashamed to say I currently drive to the office once each week.

In addition, those companies which made a big show of launching sustainable travel plans pre-pandemic, encouraging travel by train over car to reduce emissions, have seen the train tickets start to bite into the expenses budget as business travel starts up again. Understandably but disappointingly, many have now reverted and are actively encouraging staff to choose the lowest cost, rather than the most environmentally friendly option when travelling.

Those who commute daily can take advantage of season tickets, where the price comparison really does stack up, but with 4 million of us in the UK working flexibly now and over 60 million ‘overnight’ trips taken in the UK each year, that’s a significant number of cars you could take off the road.

Reducing the cost of rail to below that of car travel for ‘irregular’ travellers in the short term (or, controversially, increasing fuel duty) would utilise empty trains, reduce emissions and, most importantly, encourage people and firms to make the behavioural shift to greener transport.

Medium term viewpoint: Electric cars – don’t assume they are sustainable!

If I had £1 for everyone who’s told me they’ve done their bit for the environment by buying an electric car, I’d probably have enough saved to buy my own! I’ll be hoping for a hydrogen option though, and here’s why…

Electric vehicles (EV) run on electricity that is, in large part, still produced from fossil fuels in many parts of the world. Globally, 36.7% of electricity generated was low-carbon in 2019. The rest was generated from fossil fuels. Looking at the UK, the latest report on energy use available is for Q2 2021, reporting that renewable energy generated 37.3% of our electricity compared with fossil fuels at 43.4%.

A significant amount of energy is used to manufacture electric vehicles, particularly the battery, with 50% of its lifecycle emissions coming from its manufacture and assembly.

As part of its Zero Omissions campaign, Volvo has shared that the ‘carbon-intensive production for battery and steel makes its C40 EV more polluting to manufacture than an XC40 with a petrol engine and says at the current global electricity mix, it needs to be driven almost 70k miles – nine years based on average UK mileage – to offset its higher production emissions (compared with 30k miles if it were charged with green energy’. It has called on world leaders to accelerate clean energy investment.

If you want your electric vehicle to be sustainable:

  • Get out of the habit of replacing your vehicle with a new one every three years
  • Check the car components and battery are made and assembled in factories using renewable energy
  • Check that the car components and battery (particularly the mined elements) are ethically sourced
  • Take into account recycled materials used in production and the recyclability of the vehicle when it reaches the end of its life
  • Ensure you’re using green energy to charge your vehicle at home and work.

Given that the future sustainability of electric cars is reliant on us generating more renewable energy, this brings me to my final point…

Long term viewpoint: The answer is nuclear, but not in the way we know it!

Nuclear technology has long focused on fission – the splitting of the atom. But there is another way – fusion.

Nuclear fission vs fusion

Current and future generation nuclear fusion power

Exciting technology is being developed right here in the UK, using nuclear fusion to provide energy with a view to providing units for each settlement, town, village or municipal area. This project has just received extra funding to move to the next stage and an expert in the field stated that:If the world diverted 100% of monetary resources into fusion technology on a ‘war footing’, fusion would be ready to take over as fossil fuels are phased out.”

These units, called Tokamaks, would work holistically by producing heat to create steam, driving a steam turbine to generate electricity. Once everyone had heated their homes and boiled their kettles, the excess electricity could be used to power our vehicles. Even better, the electricity could be used to make hydrogen for the local service station so that we could all have hydrogen engine cars, but that’s an article for another day!