Digitalisation and decarbonisation: a 2-D approach to building back greener

Across the world, two disruptive and powerful trends are taking hold: digitalisation and decarbonisation. At times, it seems as if these two forces are acting against each other, with digital technologies accelerating economic growth, but also consuming huge quantities of energy and emitting high amounts of CO2.

But it’s becoming clear that rather than competing, digitalisation and decarbonisation can work together in ways that achieve sustainable economic growth without destroying our home planet.

The net zero imperative

We’re now familiar with the evidence that global warming will do irreparable damage to the world unless we can reduce the greenhouse gases that cause it. Getting to net zero means achieving the right balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

The challenge is one not just for national governments. Businesses are facing growing regulatory, reputational and market-driven pressures to transform their business models and embrace the shift to a low-carbon, sustainable future. It’s here that digitalisation can support us on the path to net zero.

The digital possibilities

In 2020, a Green Alliance study reported that  digital technologies could have significant positive environmental impacts, including: accelerating the deployment of clean technologies and helping businesses to stop wasting energy and resources.

But the report also found that many UK businesses are still not making use of digital solutions: only 42% of UK businesses have purchased cloud computing services, compared to 65% in Finland and 56% in Denmark. The authors highlighted a number of factors explaining slower digital adoption, including lack of digital skills, concerns about cybersecurity and privacy, and underinvestment in infrastructure.

AI as an ally in the battle against climate change

Another report, published last year by PwC and Microsoft explored the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in tackling the climate crisis. Focusing on agriculture, water, energy and transport, the report revealed numerous ways in which AI can have positive environmental and economic impacts.

  • In agriculture, AI can better monitor environmental conditions and crop yields;
  • AI-driven monitoring tools can track domestic and industrial water use, and enable suppliers to pre-empt water demand, reducing both wastage and shortages;
  • AI’s deep learning, predictive capabilities can help manage the supply and demand of renewable energy.

The report stressed that AI cannot act on its own, but will rely on multiple complementary technologies working together, including robotics, the internet of things, electric vehicles and more.

While the challenges of putting AI to work in tackling the climate crisis are great, the prizes of doing so are equally significant. The PwC/Microsoft report estimated that across the four sectors studied AI could:

  • contribute up to $5.2 trillion to the global economy in 2030;
  • reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by up to 4.0% in 2030, (an amount equivalent to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined);
  • create up to 38.2 million net new jobs across the global economy.

Put simply, AI can enable our future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature.

The downsides of digitalisation

As we’ve previously reported, the infrastructure that supports the digital world comes with significant energy costs and environmental impacts. From internet browsing, video and audio streaming, as well as manufacturing, shipping, and powering digital devices, digital has its own substantial carbon footprint.

The PwC/Microsoft report acknowledges that there will be trade-offs and challenges:

“For example, AI with its focus on efficiency through automation might potentially lead to ‘over exploitation’ of natural resources if not carefully guided and managed. AI, especially deep learning and quantum deep learning, could also lead to increased demand for energy, which could be counter-productive for sustainability goals, unless that energy is renewable and that electricity generation is developed hand-in-hand with application deployment.”

In addition, there is a need to ensure that all parts of the world are able to capture the benefits of digital technologies – not just the more advanced economies.

Final thoughts

Decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions is one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime. Digital technologies have enormous potential not only to achieve decarbonisation, but to improve economic performance.

As both the Green Alliance and PwC/Microsoft reports have underlined, this can be achieved by taking a joined-up approach to digitalisation and green growth. This means thinking beyond the technology to consider issues such as investing in education and training to develop the skills needed to support the growth of clean industries and digitalisation, addressing privacy concerns and supporting businesses in their drive to shrink their carbon footprints.

As we emerge from a pandemic which has inflicted great damage to economies, but which has also demonstrated the possibilities of changing longstanding habits, digitalisation is presenting us with opportunities to ensure that building back greener is more than just a slogan.


Further reading: more on climate change and technology from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

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After Glasgow: the legacies of COP26 and the continuing challenge of climate change

It’s almost four months since the UN’s climate change conference took place in Glasgow. COP26 was headlined as a pivotal moment in the fight against global warming. But how much was achieved in Glasgow, and how much more action is needed if we’re to limit destructive levels of global temperature rises?

The legacies of COP26 were the focal point of a webinar last month, hosted by Strathclyde University’s Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI).  Mairi Spowage, the recently appointed Director of the FAI, welcomed Chris Stark, CEO of the Climate Change Committee and Steve Williams, senior partner at Deloitte Scotland, to consider how the outcomes from COP26 might influence government policy and business practice.

COP26 report card: a mixed picture

Chris Stark began with an upbeat assessment of COP26, noting that while it didn’t deliver everything hoped for, the inclusion of voices from civil society, business and finance added weight to the urgency of tackling climate change. Chris expects those voices to be influential in pushing governments to keep their promises on tackling climate change. He also welcomed the sectoral agreements announced in Glasgow on reducing the use of coal, cutting methane emissions and protecting forests.

That said, Chris warned that the agreements in Glasgow will not be enough to prevent the Earth’s average temperature exceeding a rise of 1.5 degrees C – the tipping point where many climate impacts go from destructive to catastrophic:

“The overall outcomes are still heading in the wrong direction. We went into the Paris COP in 2015 facing 3.6 degrees of warming. If we add up all the current policies that we see globally, we will leave Glasgow facing something like 2.7 degrees of warming.”

All of which heightens the importance of delivering every one of the emissions reduction targets which governments and businesses have set for 2030. Chris also stressed that some countries need to raise their levels of ambition, notably Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, China and Russia.

Business: the journey to tackling climate change

Business has a vital role to play in tackling global warming, and Steve Williams outlined where the corporate sector currently finds itself. Most of Deloitte’s clients have targets and governance in place to reduce their carbon footprints, although not all have a credible road map to achieving decarbonisation.

Steve went on to highlight four areas that are being worked on.

Many companies are trying to understand the scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions targets, as well as setting science-based emissions targets, and investing in systems to obtain the right data to make sure they can stand behind the numbers that they publicise.

With regard to business operations, companies are attempting to truly understand their reliance on fossil fuels, switching to renewables, and exploring what other clean technologies are available. In addition, business is trying to have a clearer view of the vulnerabilities around supply chains that could result from climate change.

A third focal point for business is understanding investors’ expectations. Lenders are demanding more of companies in terms of decarbonisation, and they want to know about their roadmaps to sustainability.

The fourth area is one which Steve saw for himself during COP26. Businesses are starting to talk more about biodiversity and the health of our oceans. As a result, companies are moving towards ‘nature-friendly’ targets beyond existing decarbonisation goals.

Delivering on the promises: UK and Scottish Governments

As Chris Stark explained, the Climate Change Committee  (CCC) advises the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets and reports to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In line with CCC advice, last year the UK Government set in law the world’s most ambitious climate change target, aiming to cut emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s net zero emissions target date of 2045 is ahead of many other countries, and it has also set a very ambitious target of a 75% reduction in emissions by 2030, relative to 1990 levels.

Chris Stark stressed that both the UK and Scotland are presenting good examples to the rest of the world in addressing climate change. But he also highlighted the need to move even faster in the next decade. Having closed its major coal fired power stations, the major challenge for the UK is decarbonising buildings. Chris noted that energy efficiency strategies, covering measures like insulation and double glazing of buildings, are important, but…

“…the big gains in terms of emissions come from decarbonising heat supply to those buildings. This is a big cost, but in the long run it is worth it. My message here is we’ve got to get real about this. We have lots of ways in which we could do it, but until you start to knuckle down, particularly in making plans for the cities, where the big win is, it’s not going to happen.”

Business: decarbonising in a post-Covid world

Steve Williams suggested that the restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have made it easier for some businesses to meet their decarbonisation targets. With commuting and business travel at significantly lower levels during the height of the pandemic, many companies’ emissions fell dramatically. As Steve acknowledged, the question now is how to make sure that these gains are not lost in the longer term. Examples of good practice include committing to less business travel in future, electrifying car fleets and appointing corporate climate champions.

Chris added that the CCC, having longstanding experience of advising government on policy,  is now increasingly providing advice to businesses on tackling climate change. Chris highlighted some of the issues business should be considering:

“Our primary advice to the business community is just start measuring. Think properly about the way in which you impact through emissions , and how exposed you are to the climate risks. And then think about the strategies you can use to push the national mission to net zero. As businesses do this, the policy environment should respond and go more quickly”

Final thoughts

Just four months on from COP26, the world looks very different today.  There are now concerns that economic pressures could cause governments to backslide on their climate change commitments, especially with a looming energy crisis threatening the cost of living.  However, there have also been more positive developments.

Earlier this month, leaders from nearly 200 countries agreed to draw up a legally binding treaty on reducing plastic waste. This will not only have positive impacts on ocean and marine life; it will also make a difference on climate change. A 2019 study reported that the production and incineration of plastic produced more than 850 million tons of greenhouse gases – equivalent to 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.

The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change has reiterated that global warming remains a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. The report couldn’t be clearer about what’s at stake:

“Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

You can watch a recording of the FAI webinar here

Photo by William Gibson on Unsplash

Further reading: more on tackling climate change from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Guest post | Carbon capture and storage: where should the world store CO₂? It’s a moral dilemma

The recent Glasgow climate pact committed 197 countries to “phas[ing] down unabated coal”. Unabated coal refers to when power stations or factories burn coal without capturing and storing the carbon dioxide (CO₂) generated.

Kian Mintz-Woo, University College Cork

Because the world has made such little progress in eliminating coal, oil and fossil gas, climate modellers foresee some use of carbon capture and storage as necessary to reach zero emissions in enough time to avert catastrophic warming. The technology to capture carbon is in development, but one burning question remains: where on Earth should we store all that carbon?

Different methods of carbon capture will take place at different sites. Some involve absorbing emissions immediately after burning fossil fuels in chimneys and smokestacks where the CO₂ is highly concentrated. Other methods capture carbon directly from the air, either by using chemical reactions that bind the carbon using lots of energy or by growing carbon-hungry plants which can be burned for energy and the resulting emissions subsequently captured.

In new research, myself and environmental engineer Joe Lane at Princeton University in the US argued that, regardless of the method, leaving decisions about where to store carbon to commercial entities would mean avoiding an important moral dilemma.

Funding for carbon capture and storage is insufficient. At the current rate of deployment, 700 million tonnes of CO₂ storage capacity will be added by 2050 – 10% of what is required.

Countries would have to massively ramp up investment to be compliant with the Paris agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Some of this money would be public funding, and people would reasonably expect it to fund projects which are morally sound.

On the one hand, it might be deemed important to develop storage sites with the best prospects for storing lots of greenhouse gas for the longest duration. This argument maintains that the most important consideration for deploying carbon capture and storage is making the largest possible contribution to arresting climate change.

To give carbon storage sites the greatest chance of success, it makes sense to develop them in places where the geology has been thoroughly explored and where there is lots of relevant expertise. This would imply pumping carbon into underground storage sites in northern Europe, the Middle East and the US, where companies have spent centuries looking for and extracting fossil fuels. Storing carbon is roughly the reverse of extracting it from the ground, and there is an opportunity for workers in the oil and gas industry to lend their skills and expertise to this endeavour.

A California oil field dotted with derricks.
Some US companies have been extracting oil for well over a century. Alizada Studios/Shutterstock

On the other hand, it might be important to develop storage sites in economies where the current and future demand for carbon capture and storage is greatest. These competing aims pull in different directions. The regions with the best prospects are not often those with the greatest expected need.

Developing storage sites in economies where expected demand for carbon capture is highest overwhelmingly favours developing regions of Asia. In India and China, for instance, coal power stations and cement plants are expensive to decommission and will need lots of carbon capture and storage capacity to decarbonise. If developing regions are expected to decarbonise without sufficient support to roll out carbon capture and storage, it could mean they have to throttle development to reduce emissions.

There are no easy answers in this debate. Increasing carbon capture and storage capacity as quickly as possible could benefit future generations by reducing the severity of climate change. So, you could argue that developing the most promising sites in Europe is the best way forward. But directing investment for storage facilities from wealthy countries to developing regions could help address the debt the former owes the latter for causing the brunt of the climate crisis.

World leaders should recognise this moral dilemma and consider the choices with urgency. The need to remove and safely store carbon becomes more severe by the day. Given the time and costs involved in developing storage sites, and the real possibility that the storage sites may not be sufficient for the carbon countries emit, this is a question which cannot be delayed.


Kian Mintz-Woo, Lecturer in Philosophy, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more on air pollution from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Close to home: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Guest Post: Will coronavirus be the catalyst for lasting air quality improvements?

By Freddie Talberg

‘Unprecedented’ has been the word of the moment as we find ourselves living through a health pandemic, the likes of which most of us have never seen before.

Who would have thought, even last month, that we would be faced with school closures, panic buying and huge bailouts of the economy that make Boris Johnson’s government look like Clement Attlee’s?

We will not know the long-term impact of this pandemic for months, maybe even years, but in the short-term as business braces for a bumpy ride ahead and our health system prepares for its most pressurised moment since the founding of the welfare state, we can look for some glimmers of light in the darkness.

In both China and Italy, there have been significant and immediate reductions in levels of air pollution in response to government lockdowns to tackle the virus outbreak. Research suggests a 25% drop in energy usage in the former that could see a 1% decline in its carbon emissions by the end of the year. In Italy, the vision of Venice’s canals running clear puts into perspective how quickly a reduction in human activity can positively improve air quality.

Looking around London, you can see the impact of full-scale lockdown just days in. Almost no traffic on the streets, and the number of people entering the city centre significantly down. This is reducing the public’s exposure to harmful particulates and other sources of air pollution, as it is in New York, where lockdown measures were implemented last week; early research shows carbon monoxide emissions down 50% on this time last year.

We should be careful about the conclusions that can be made from this. These positive environmental effects are down a significant government intervention that has essentially shut down all economic activity in response to a major public health emergency. These measures are going to take a toll on our wellbeing and can in no way be considered a sustainable solution.

But it makes me wonder. Can we possibly balance economic and social wellbeing whilst having a meaningful impact upon pollution levels in our cities? We will not be able to see the long-term legacy of this pandemic for years, but we should think about what we want it to be.

In my opinion, if one thing emerges above all else as the one thing we learn from COVID-19 and the lockdown measures it has enforced, is that we must reconsider certain aspects of our lives that we deem necessary and the long-term impact that our actions have on air quality. Seeing how much more vulnerable those with underlying health issues, including chronic lung conditions, are to the coronavirus says so much about the importance of good air quality.

We have to emerge from this crisis with a completely different attitude on how we tackle air quality issues and how we protect lung health.

The excellent quality open source data, such as that provided by the European Space Agency showing Italy and by NASA showing China, allows us to monitor the impacts of lockdown measures and track air pollution in real-time. This sort of tracking has to continue  once restrictions are lifted and include specific remediations, in order to prevent a spike in pollutive activity.

Families are going to travel to visit loved ones not seen for months across the country and the world, or they will take that holiday they had to cancel. Businesses meanwhile will look to make up for lost time and industrial production will ramp up. ‘Flatten the curve’ has been the government’s motto around coronavirus, and should be the world’s motto regarding emissions after this is over.

We therefore must have practical solutions in place. Taking control of emissions is difficult at the best of times, but technology can be used to help companies track their emissions levels and act on air quality, on a scale that works for them – it is not just a job for the world’s largest space agencies.

EMSOL for example, provides businesses with real-time, specific, actionable evidence about emission breaches delivered straight to their mobile. So, they can pinpoint the problem the moment it becomes a problem, and take specific steps every day to improve air quality.

It may not seem the priority right now but this pandemic does not change that we are in an ongoing climate crisis. COVID-19 is forcing us to ask fundamental questions about how we live our lives, and it is a wake-up call for London and big cities around the world about the importance of good lung health.

When all this is over, I hope to see our political and business leaders make the legislative changes necessary that mean we can track and reduce our pollution levels for the long-term.

Freddie Talberg, CEO and co-founder of Emsol

Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.


Idox Transport solutions enable traffic managers to model, monitor and control the environmental effects of travel as well as reducing congestion to maximise the use of a limited road network, all using UTMC, RTIG, SIRI and other recognised industry protocols. Idox Transport was also funded through the UK Government’s Low Emission Freight and Logistics Trial to explore the use of real-time data tools to change driver behaviour, reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.


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Guest post: The 2035 petrol, diesel and hybrid ban – what it means and how we get there

The government has announced they will ban the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles from 2035, bringing forward the original date by five years. In this guest blog, Ian Johnston, CEO of EV charging network, Engenie, discusses the challenges and opportunities that this target will bring.

Since 2017, when a ban on petrol and diesel cars was first introduced by the UK government, there has been growing calls for the policy to have more ambition. Those calls were answered when the government brought forward its ban.

On Tuesday February 4 the government, having resisted calls for more stringent anti-ICE (internal combustion engine) polices for three years, brought its ban forward from 2040 to 2035.

The move was announced almost a year after the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) formally advised that the ban be brought forward to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and just weeks after an election dominated by an environmental policy arms race between rival parties competing for the ever-growing climate-conscious vote. This meant that the change of date, as radical as it was, wasn’t wholly unexpected. The real surprise? Hybrids.

The decision to include hybrids and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) in the ban came as quite a shock to many in the industry, not least for those who had, as recently as late 2018, been offered generous subsidies for these alternatives to dedicated ICE vehicles.

However, considering a series of studies reported that PHEVs could actually be emitting more CO2 than equivalent petrol-only cars due to extra battery weight, it seems to be a policy that has considered the real impact of hybrids and the scale of change needed for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Hybrids have played an important role by getting drivers used to electric motoring but with pure electric vehicles (EVs) approaching cost parity and achieving longer range, they are no longer needed as much as they once were.

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the CCC, also pointed out that cars are typically on UK roads for 14 years, meaning a ban – inclusive of these polluting hybrids – must happen by 2035 in order to get them off the road in time for Net Zero by 2050.

2035 – what does it mean and how do we get there?

Despite being welcomed by environmentalists and authoritative organisations such as the CCC, a number of motoring groups and manufacturers have described the move as ‘a date without a policy’.

So, we have a date to focus our minds but what do we need to do to get there? Perhaps the most prominent criticism levelled at the new policy is that public charging infrastructure is not yet ready to cope with mass electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

However, this is far from the truth. The private sector has done a great job of developing a huge number of public-access EV chargers in populated areas. In fact, as of last year, there are more public-access EV charging points than petrol stations.

The industry is also rising to the challenge of creating a truly open-access network to give drivers the best possible experience. Regulation, due to come into force this spring, is primed to enshrine this interoperability between charging networks in law.

Yet an issue remains. While the more commercially viable areas of the country which benefit from higher customer demand – shopping centres, retail parks, supermarkets, car parks etc. – have been well served by the private sector, other, more rural, areas of the country with less customer demand naturally deliver less return on investment and are therefore less likely to attract private investment.

The result is under-developed infrastructure in these areas. This is where the government can give real substance to its new target. By offering direct support to these areas, in particular, we can ensure that the rollout of chargers is a strategically managed programme, aimed at enabling mass EV adoption in all areas of the UK.

The idea that there are virtually no public charging points to cater for EV owners is just one misconception that plagues the country’s efforts to develop an established EV market. That’s why a sustained effort to educate the general public on EVs is needed.

If the government is committed to achieving its 2035 target, it must take responsibility for dispelling myths – i.e. lack of charging points, misconceptions about charging behaviour, range anxiety etc. – and educating on benefits i.e. the ease of home charging, lower fuels costs, zero emissions, minimal maintenance and superior driving experience.

Supply and demand

Finally, and perhaps most frustratingly for early adopters of EVs, there is the issue of EV supply. There’s no doubt that demand for EVs is skyrocketing. In fact, the market for EVs is set to expand from 3.4% of all vehicles sold in 2019 to 5.5% in 2020. Despite this, drivers are often discouraged by long waiting times for new vehicles – something that’s severely inhibiting the growth of this burgeoning market.

To tackle this issue, and thus help meet the 2035 target, the UK must cultivate an attractive trading environment for EV suppliers. One effective way to do this is to encourage OEM investment in UK-based supply chains – namely battery Gigafactories.

This will keep costs down for OEMs by shortening supply chains for the UK market and make a compelling case for them to prioritise UK EV deliveries over other countries.

The 2035 target is no mean feat and we have certainly planted an ambitious stake in the ground. The industry has already done much of the hard work but only by continuing to implement meaningful actions and gaining government support in key areas can we give the new target real substance and credibility.


Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.

Further reading: more blog posts on electric vehicles

Driving diesel out of town: how cities are tackling the deadly problem of air pollution

2017 was less than a week old when, on a single day, London used up its entire annual air pollution limit.  European Union air quality standards permit the maximum safe levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NO2) to be exceeded no more than 18 times a year. But on 6 January just one site – Brixton Road in Lambeth – generated levels of NO2 high enough to burn through the capital’s annual limit.

Experience underlined that the first breach of the year was always unlikely to be the last. In 2016, another part of London (Putney High Street) exceeded the limit 1,200 times. Other UK cities are also badly affected by air pollution. Government figures show that 38 out of the country’s 43 air quality zones breached legal limits for air pollution in 2015.

The deadly effects of air pollution

Since 2012, evidence on the effects of air pollution on the environment and public health has been mounting. Health issues such as cardiac and respiratory conditions can be aggravated by poor quality air, which can also cause lung cancer. In the UK, pollution is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution. Beyond the human costs, poor air quality also has economic costs (around £15-20 billion a year), as well as damaging biodiversity, wildlife and crops.

Action on air pollution

“Nearly 40 per cent of all NOx emissions within London come from diesel vehicles, and unless this is explicitly tackled it will be impossible to cleanse London’s air.”
Lethal and illegal: solving London’s air pollution crisis – IPPR

The most significant cause of poor air quality in the UK is road traffic pollution, and in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel engines. In recent years, scientists have been highlighting the dangers of diesel, but the Volkswagen emissions scandal underscored just how bad diesel vehicles are for urban environments.

In 2015, the UK government announced plans to discourage diesel vehicles from entering clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby. Further measures are expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London,  Sadiq Khan, announced yesterday that from April 2019 the most polluting vehicles will have to pay a daily charge to drive within central London. He is also proposing to expand this charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), across Greater London for heavy diesel vehicles, including buses, coaches and lorries. In the meantime, from October this year, cars, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in central London will need to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, or pay a daily £10 Emissions Surcharge (also known as the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge). In addition, London has been considering more innovative approaches to cleaner transport.

Last month, four House of Commons committees announced an unprecedented joint enquiry into the health and environmental effects of toxic air. Louise Ellman of the Transport Committee acknowledged the need for an efficient and flexible transport system, but added:

Emissions from vehicles are a significant problem and the standards that governments have relied on have not delivered the expected reductions. We will be asking what more can be done to increase the use of cleaner vehicles as well as to encourage the use of sustainable modes of transport.”

Cracking down on diesel vehicles

But many believe tougher action is needed, and that the time has come to drive diesel vehicles out of towns and cities.

This month, Westminster City Council becomes the first in the UK to impose additional charges for parking diesel-powered vehicles. For a trial period, drivers of diesel cars and vans will have to pay an additional 50% to park in one of the borough’s most heavily polluted streets.  Westminster’s Councillor David Harvey believes the charge will cause drivers to make more environmentally-friendly choices:

“Additional charges for diesel vehicles will mean people think twice about using highly polluting cars and invest in cleaner transport that will make a real difference in the quality of air we breathe and our environment.”

Another London council – Hackney – has gone further, announcing plans to ban any non-electric cars from parking on several streets bordering the City of London’s financial district.

International action

Beyond the UK, national and local governments are also taking the problem of air pollution caused by diesel emissions more seriously.

In December 2016, the longest and most intense pollution spike for a decade jolted the authorities in Paris into restricting traffic coming into the city. On alternate days, drivers of vehicles with odd-number and even-number licence plates were told to leave their cars at home. At the same time, public transport in the city and the suburbs was free of charge. The following month, a mandatory scheme was introduced in Paris and Lyon obliging drivers to display anti-pollution stickers indicating the age and cleanliness of their vehicles. Paris had already announced that cars registered before 1997 would be banned from the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

Paris has also forged a joint agreement with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City to completely remove diesel vehicles from their city centres by 2025. The Netherlands is also believed to be considering a diesel ban, although reports of a similar move in Norway proved premature.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s ambitions for car-free “superblocks” to improve the city’s air quality have received international attention, but have also encountered some local resistance.

The death of diesel?

Some are concerned that a total ban on diesel vehicles is being put forward too easily as a solution to the problem:

Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality, and their website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars.”

But as the case mounts against diesel, drivers are taking note. In February 2017, registration of diesel cars in the UK fell by 9.2%, while demand for alternative fuel vehicles saw a dramatic increase of 48.9%. London and other UK cities may not yet have completely banned diesel vehicles from their centres, but increasingly the question is not if, but when.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, check out our other articles on air quality:

The positive paybacks of clearing the air

Industrial chimneys

by James Carson

Two reports published last week highlight the potential benefits of policies for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

In the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and health, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that a reduction in carbon emissions could significantly cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and lung disease. The MIT researchers suggest that some carbon-cutting policies could be so effective that they would save more money than the cost of implementation.

“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study. “In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”

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