If you think car electrification is tough – try decarbonising lorries and coaches
By Richard Smith RHA MD for Commercial Motor Magazine.
The RHA fully supports net-zero targets but there is a clear and present danger that without proper planning and transition the economy, which depends on the movement of lorries, could be damaged. The truth is it is much harder to decarbonise trucks and coaches than cars and vans. Smaller vehicles are lighter and don’t need so much power to carry loads – therefore their electric batteries are smaller and the power demand to charge them is less.
For larger vehicles the problem is quite literally bigger. Lorry manufacturers and their customers are still on a journey to find the best net-zero solution for heavy vehicles. Electric lorries don’t have the range, their batteries are large, and the charging time is several hours. In addition, unlike cars, a lorry is out on the road for a much greater length of time than a car. Many lorries can be out 24/7, with the power demand needed to keep charged and moving much greater.
Alternatives include various types of hydrogen fuel, bio diesel, natural gas, and hydrogenated vegetable oil although we recognise the latter fuel types are not zero emission. Apart from range, there are two other big problems: the price of the vehicle compared to diesel, and the charging (for electric) and refuelling (for hydrogen and other types) are few and far between with a lack of pace in building the infrastructure needed.
Put simply, operators could end up with a vehicle that costs them three times as much but can’t do the job because it doesn’t have the range and there’s nowhere to charge it.
There remain many questions which need answering, and to contribute to the discussion, the RHA has set up a Net Zero Forum. It consists of a cross-representative group of members with the aim of producing a regular roadmap that can guide action on the road to net zero and decarbonising fleets. Targeted at the many stakeholders who are critical to making Net Zero a success including government, manufacturers, the public, private investment funders, facilities, and fuel providers, it will be used to make decarbonisation a reality that works for our sector.
It meets for the first time in the middle of this month and will be tackling a range of issues including clarity on fuels and timing, investment plans from all stakeholders, collaboration across the industry providing certainty to allow businesses to plan and develop decarbonisation strategy.
Collaboration is essential if environmental goals to stop the sale of new lighter diesel lorries by 2035 and heavier vehicles by 2040 are to be delivered. Achieving Net Zero is complex, but it can be done well and enjoy the support of all.
The economy – and its success – is vital to all of us. 95% of everything we have in the UK comes on the back of a lorry at some point and given the distances involved and the lack of rail freight capability there is no alternative. So environmental wellbeing and economic well-being go hand in hand – focussing on one, backfires on the other.
We think there is a case for greater flexibility in the diesel phase-out dates. There’s also a need for greater pragmatism, HVO is not zero emission, but cuts tailpipe emissions of carbon by 90% and doesn’t require operators to buy a new vehicle.
We need a supportive financial and regulatory framework to work towards a carbon zero future. Imposing punishing charges to incentivise change is a mistake. It hurts those least able to adapt the most, with low-margin industries like logistics passing those costs on to customers, potentially fuelling inflation. Instead, we need greater government investment and tax-breaks.
There is tremendous goodwill from the haulage and coach sectors to improve the environment, but achieving those aims requires the balancing of competing issues. The RHA believes the Uxbridge ULEZ result is a shot-across-the-bows to politicians that a change of approach is now needed as the public won’t accept change which they feel is unfair, irrational, and damaging to business and their lives. That approach must be guided by dialogue, debate, and consent on which the Net Zero Forum will take a leading role to facilitate.