Road to zero or road to nowhere

29 Apr 2020

Policy – and society – urgently need to engage with lowering the demand for mobility

Like other countries around the world, the UK has pledged to phase out the sale of new fossil fuel cars and vans. The recent shift to an earlier target year of 2035 – or even 2032 – and to include hybrid vehicles has been welcomed in some quarters but deemed too difficult and disruptive in others.  The current Government consultation and impending publication of a ‘Transport Decarbonisation Plan’ means now is a good time to consider the implications of these strategies in a net-zero world that requires emissions to decrease faster and further than ever before.

The transport sector has had an almost complete dependence on oil since the 1970s. Over the past twelve months, in the UK it has maintained its onerous accolade of being the only sector to have increased its energy demand and CO2 emissions compared to 1990 levels. The technical challenge of decarbonising heavy goods vehicles, ships and aircraft renders this unsurprising, at least in part.

The shock comes in the revelation that the average tailpipe CO2 emissions from new passenger cars has been increasing for the past three years. Switching from diesel accounts for a small proportion of this increase; the main culprit is a continued swing towards larger passenger cars, particularly Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs). To accelerate the transition to a low carbon transport system, the phasing out of the sale of new conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles by a given date is one of a number of potentially ‘disruptive’ policies that have been announced over the past five years. Several countries and cities have committed to phasing out conventional vehicles between 2025 and 2040, with manufacturers also announcing targets.

However, our research, published in the journal Energy Policy and delivered as part of the UK Energy Research Center programme on Disruption and Continuity has found that neither existing transport policies nor the pledge to bring forward the phase-out of fossil fuel vehicles are sufficient to hit carbon reduction targets or make the early gains needed to meet the net-zero targets for cars and vans.

Policy action is urgently needed to reduce the demand for mobility and car ownership and achieve an earlier phase-out of fossil fuel vehicles, which are all needed for a Paris-compliant trajectory.

Implications of a 2030 phase-out date

By comparing the future scenarios for phasing out of fossil fuel cars and vans with wider social change and reduced demand for mobility our research has shown that the transport sector has a mammoth task ahead if the net-zero challenge is to be taken seriously across all sectors of the economy. For cars and vans, which make up the majority of carbon emissions from transport, the research has shown that existing policy Including the Road to Zero strategy may neither hit the target nor make the early gains needed for a 1.5°C trajectory. This adds to the growing evidence base that the later targets for phasing out conventional fossil fuel vehicles may be inadequate and not fit for purpose.

Deeper and earlier reductions in carbon and local air quality emissions can be achieved by more ambitious but largely non-disruptive change of a 2030 ‘phase out’ that includes all fossil fuel vehicles. This would include all vehicles with an internal combustion engine, whether ‘self-charging’ or not. However, only the earlier phase-outs combined with lower demand for mobility and car ownership would make significant contributions to an emissions pathway that is both Paris compliant and meets legislated urban air quality limits. There is a growing consensus that fewer, not only cleaner, vehicles are needed, plus more cycling and walking and better transit systems.

Technical substitution alone will be too slow to contribute meaningfully to meeting ‘net zero’ carbon reduction targets. Even in the most optimistic case fossil fuel cars and vans will dominate UK roads well into the late 2030s. The target date needs to be brought forward to 2030, include all fossil fuel vehicles and be linked to accelerated investment in charging networks and battery development and deployment.

Lifestyle change

Much more emphasis in policy and strategy development should be put on reducing the need to travel and the role of lifestyle change. This is starting to happen at global and national levels, but given the scale and pace of change needed much more should be done. Lowering demand for mobility could not only achieve earlier and bigger carbon reductions but also reduce energy demand and life cycle emissions that are difficult to tackle by technical substitution alone.

There is a growing consensus that electric mobility is indeed cleaner and lower carbon on a lifecycle basis. Lifecycle emissions include those all the way from fuel production and refinery, electricity generation and distribution, vehicle manufacturing and use, and end of life impacts. Something that is often ignored in the debate around electric mobility is the finding that any increases in emissions from generating additional electricity are more than offset by a reduction in upstream fossil fuel emissions.

In addition to technical substitution, demand reduction and lifestyle changes would also achieve congestion relief, less parking infrastructure and road expansions, less inequality, and improved road safety. It would be able to improve traffic congestion, reduce costs and transport inequality, and enable more active lifestyles. This sends a clear message to our politicians and voters.

Many of the co-benefits of a reduction in road and air traffic are becoming apparent due to the current global Coronavirus pandemic and associated prevention measures. These have temporarily resulted in significant reductions in CO2 emissions and air pollution, up to 20-30% in the case of China. A similar reduction has been observed in Italylarger in Barcelona and other places. It remains to be seen what long-term impact on lifestyles and social norms this may have when travel restrictions are lifted. A ‘road to somewhere better’ might provide a silver lining this crisis so desperately needs.

Our six policy recommendations:

  1. The ‘phase out’ target date should be brought forward to 2030. It must include all fossil fuel vehicles and be linked to accelerated investment in charging networks and battery development and deployment.
  2. Much more emphasis in policy and strategy development should be put on travel demand reduction, mode shift and the role of lifestyle change. This would have multiple co-benefits for all of society, be fairer and more inclusive.
  3. With increasing road transport electrification, a move towards widening the scope of emissions types and considering the use of life cycle emissions – that account for direct and embedded emissions – in policy-making is recommended.
  4. Further and earlier ‘disruptions’ to the transport-energy system are needed, including bans in urban areas and regulation to reduce the availability and sale of ‘unnecessarily’ large cars.
  5. Dynamic road pricing – where charges vary by time and location – may be needed to sustain £billions of fuel duty revenues, curb travel demand, and tackle congestion.
  6. Careful policy design, adaptive policy-making, targeted investment (e.g. battery RD&D) and hypothecation of taxes to improve alternatives to fossil fuel mobility are essential to minimise political and economic risks.


Brand, C., Anable, J., Ketsopoulou, I. and Watson, J. (2020) Road to zero or road to nowhere? Disrupting transport and energy in a zero-carbon worldEnergy Policy, 139. 111334.

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