Sarah Wixey – The road to net zero carbon transportation

Dr Sarah Wixey – Associate Director at Tetra Tech – holds many years of experience in the transportation sector. Having supported clients on last mile logistics and sustainable transport initiatives, she now works with public bodies, vehicle manufacturers, and commercial operators to help achieve net zero carbon emissions.

How has the landscape for carbon-free vehicles changed in recent years?

Massively. When I started supporting clients with transitioning from diesel and petrol vehicles to cleaner solutions, the focus was ‘low emission’ transport. Before long, that became ‘ultra-low’, and now ‘net zero’ has become the new milestone to strive for.

Why net zero instead of low and ultra-low?

Some of this can be attributed to how rapidly the political climate has shifted, partly due to how firmly embedded the awareness of climate change impact has become in people’s minds today.

But modelling shows that even low- and ultra-low emissions can’t reliably achieve the results we need to prevent further climate change problems. That has created a surge in demand for investing in zero-emission technologies in combination with behavioural change programmes.

What are some of the biggest challenges with carbon-free vehicles?

Available and working infrastructure, including charging points for EV users, is the biggest source of anxiety. Early adopters have contended with an off-putting number of EV charging networks, each with their own unique systems and charging mechanisms – some even require membership. This needs to be simplified and made more user-friendly.

With HGVs, smaller manufacturers are coming forward with new electric products, such as the Volta Zero 16t urban delivery truck, but larger and more traditional manufacturers have been much slower to transition to electrification. With heavier HGVs, it’s not uncommon to see a switch to gas – it’s cleaner than diesel, but it’s still a fossil fuel that burns carbon and there’s an infrastructure network issue; there aren’t enough refuelling stations.

What’s the solution to attaining net zero carbon vehicle emissions?

The key is recognising there isn’t a silver bullet. When studies showed the carbon impacts associated with petrol vehicles, people switched to diesel because they thought they were doing the right thing. We now know that diesel emissions have a detrimental impact on air quality and we need to change our behaviour once again and move to zero emission lifestyles.

While the EV revolution is extremely promising in the potential benefits for smaller and lighter vehicles, as well as micro mobility (e-scooters, e-bikes, and e-cargo bikes), it’s not a one-stop solution. You have to consider its potential strain on the power grid. We need a mix of strategies and smart technologies to assess whether EVs are the right vehicle for different journey types.

We also need to include green hydrogen in our transport roadmap. In July (2020), the EU launched its Hydrogen Strategy as part of its economic recovery plan. Hydrogen has been identified as an investment priority to boost economic growth and resilience and create local jobs, so the publication of the strategy in 2021 is highly anticipated.

How does Tetra Tech support the transition to net zero carbon vehicles?

We help organisations develop their net zero carbon strategies, while helping fleet operators transition to cleaner vehicles. Meanwhile, we help local authorities develop their EV charging requirements and we also help infrastructure providers obtain planning permission for their infrastructure energy networks.

There’s a lot of awareness raising required to dispel myths, which also extends to our work with local authorities to raise awareness with residents and businesses about alternatively fuelled vehicles and technologies.

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