Transport technology is developing fast and it is not clear which technologies will dominate. This makes the transition to zero-carbon transport more difficult to plan.
Because of the urgency of the environmental crises, the Common Home Plan is based only on existing technologies as there simply isn’t time to invent, test and deploy new technologies. Transport is an exception to this, because transport technology is currently developing fast and it is not clear which technologies will dominate. This makes the transition to zero-carbon transport more difficult to plan.
But there are some things we know will be very likely. First, zero-carbon transport will either be fuelled by electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, and the likelihood is that we will end up with a mix of both. Hydrogen refuelling is difficult at the small scale so most small vehicles like cars and vans will probably use electric batteries. But electric batteries get increasingly inefficient at a larger scale and so lorries and buses are more likely to use hydrogen fuel cells, and very large vehicles like ferries and cargo ships will almost certainly use hydrogen.
There are other, crucial questions we don’t yet know the answer to. Perhaps prime among them is the development of autonomous (or ‘driverless’) vehicles. There is a good chance that these will come to dominate because they are simply much more efficient at moving people and goods around. However, these technologies are still in development and there is a long way to go before we can talk with any certainly about a ‘driverless future’.
This is problematic; put simply, the infrastructure for cars driven by people would be much the same as the infrastructure for driverless – but it would be in a completely different place. It will be very costly and complex to put street-side recharging facilities into every residential area, but this is where the demand for charging of private cars parked at home would be. However, autonomous cars would not be parked in residential areas at all and are more likely to be charged in large central depots overnight when not being used.
This makes planning a carbon-free transport system difficult – but there are some things we know for certain. First, we will need a national electric recharging infrastructure even if we don’t know the optimal locations for all recharging facilities. This will be needed for the gradual transition to privately-owned electric vehicles and for whatever system takes over from there. We will also need a national hydrogen storage and refuelling infrastructure for larger vehicles. These are substantial tasks which will underpin whatever system we move to and so work should begin immediately. This first stage will cost around £3 billion – but that is likely to be a small proportion of the total investment needed in the decarbonisation of transport. However, considering how much cheaper it is to run electric or hydrogen vehicles, not to mention the cost to our health of local air pollution due to toxic emissions from petrol and diesel engines, this initial investment will be of great overall benefit both to the consumer and the environment.
We can be much more confident that the future of marine transport is hydrogen - Scotland is already pioneering hydrogen- fuelled ferries. We should expand this rapidly not only to replace (and expand) Scotland’s fleet of ferries but also to create new expertise in specialist shipbuilding which would be another promising export industry. But this also highlights the one area of transport where we are nowhere near a viable zero-carbon solution – air transport. While there are a number of pilot projects for electrically-powered aircraft, they are currently small and have a short range. It may not be long until Scotland can meet the needs of domestic travel (flights to the islands and potentially also onwards to the rest of the UK) but the large airplanes we are used to taking us abroad are much harder to replace.
We may need to be creative about this; for example, perhaps people willing to take hydrogen ferries to get them to summer holiday destinations could be given additional holiday entitlement to make up for the longer journey times. A ‘flight budget’ which taxed an individual’s air travel after a specified allocation is used up might also be considered to discourage unnecessary flights. Teleconferencing can already replace much business travel and these technologies will develop further. But some business travel is unavoidable and international travel is economically, culturally and socially valuable, so we must find ways to maintain it without doing harm.
All of this must be integrated into a national plan with much more effective planning of public transport. To do this a National Transport Company should be established. It should immediately create an integrated public transport strategy with detailed planning for the roll-out of electric charging and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. But it should also constantly monitor the developing technologies to ensure Scotland moves rapidly towards a sustainable system of transport.
There is one final thing to say about decarbonising transport; one of the most effective ways to achieve it is to require less travel. We must plan towns and cities much better to end the need for shorter journeys by making places of work, shops and public facilities like schools, nurseries, clinics and leisure facilities much more local so people can walk or cycle instead of taking cars in the first place. Rather than planning towns and cities for shopping. and the profits of large housebuilding companies we should plan them to be much more self-sufficient. Many journeys are driven by out-of-town shopping and large supermarkets which mean basic foods can’t be bought locally at competitive prices. City centres have become more pedestrian-friendly but we need much more of this. It should be easier to walk or cycle to work, to access public services or to shop because of how we plan the places we live. Centralisation has driven the profusion of short and unnecessary journeys which can be largely planned out of our lives.