One thing is clear about the public debate on the future of road transport: it is no longer just about how many miles of motorways we have, how congested our roads are or even whether fuel duty will change.
Instead, the future of road transport is all about technology. In the last few months in the UK there has been a plethora of announcements on efforts to replace existing fossil fuelled vehicles with newer, cleaner models with ultra-low levels of emissions. Hydrogen-powered Fuel Cell Electric vehicles (FCEVs) are an exciting part of this trend.
The government, in the Autumn Statement, the Industrial Strategy Green Paper and the Queen’s Speech, has clearly identified electrical vehicles and low-carbon transport as ways to increase UK productivity and to tackle air pollution and climate change.
The case for this new focus on the transport sector is clear. Whilst successive governments have prioritised reducing the carbon emissions from our energy sector, here in the UK there has been less attention paid to decarbonising our roads.
In June 2016, the government’s climate advisors – the Committee on Climate Change – found that domestic transport is now the largest emitting sector in the UK, accounting for 24 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. In fact, transport emissions increased in both 2014 and 2015.
While the headlines tend to focus on the latest generation of battery-powered, plug-in electric vehicles now hitting showrooms around the country, we should be clear – these vehicles are not the only way to decarbonise our roads. In fact KPMG’s Global Automotive Executive Survey described Fuel Cell Electric vehicles as the “golden bullet” of electric mobility.
FCEVs will play an essential role in decarbonising not only passenger cars but also heavy duty transport such as buses, trucks and trains. To fully decarbonise transport, zero-emission vehicles such as FCEVs and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will be required. Both of these complementary technologies are necessary to serve different vehicle segments.
FCEVs require the least compromise to the way we currently drive in Britain. They do not require a change to the way drivers operate and refuel their cars, taking just a matter of minutes rather than hours to fill with fuel. They already have an average range of over 300 miles. This long range and fast refuelling time means that just one hydrogen refuelling station provides the same capability as 350 plug-in electric vehicle charging points.
If we are to decarbonise our private transport sector and improve air quality as quickly and as smoothly as possible, we need to ensure that consumers have a range of technologies, including FCEVs, to choose from, based on their driving requirements. Offering them the widest range of opportunities to make a difference, with minimum compromise, is essential to the UK becoming a world leader in transport decarbonisation.
We call on the government to focus on two areas to help consumers: incentivise them to make the right decision to purchase FCEVs; and use policy to support the creation of the required hydrogen refuelling infrastructure.
The government’s existing grant-funding system, which supports new plug-in electric vehicle and FCEV purchases, has successfully boosted the numbers of clean vehicles on the road. But now is the time to reform it to provide greater support for FCEVs and the infrastructure necessary to support them. Refocusing that investment will help boost consumer demand for – and therefore supply of – FCEVs, by bringing down the cost of this technology which can decarbonise not only smaller, short range vehicles, but the entire transport fleet.
FCEVs are already exempted from Vehicle Excise Duty and at the moment the government plans for this to continue. But to provide greater long-term certainty, it should commit to doing so for the lifetime of this parliament at the very least.
In 2015, 55 per cent of new car registrations were by companies, highlighting the importance of company car purchases to decarbonising road transport. The government should use its current review of company car tax emissions standards to tighten them further to ensure that they strongly support fuel cell electric and other ultra-low emissions vehicles.
With consumer choice supported, attention should turn to the infrastructure necessary to support that choice. The government already plans to introduce The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill in the coming months, which will introduce new powers for it to mandate the installation of hydrogen refuelling capability at large petrol stations. But it needs to be clearer in its ambition, by using the Emissions Reduction Plan to adopt the Low-Carbon Vehicle Partnership’s target of 65 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2020 – enough to service major population centres and connecting roads predominantly in the South East of England where the UK’s population is most dense.
This will be a useful short-term measure. In the long term, the government should introduce standardised health and safety regulations for hydrogen refuelling stations to ensure they can be built quickly, easily and safely by developers making the UK a leader in this technology and its application.
All of these changes are both realistic and deliverable in a short period of time and would help transform the increasingly poor air quality in our congested towns and cities. Emerging evidence shows – both in the UK and abroad – that decisive Government action has a major role to play in accelerating the decarbonisation of our roads and the cleaning of the air that we all breathe. And with a real sense of the momentum that we are now seeing, this is the time for government to take action, enabling industry to take the lead and for us as consumers to change the way we think about the fuels we use for road transport.