Energy Insight: Decarbonising transport in the United Kingdom

In September 2018, British Prime Minister, Theresa May, told the delegates to the World’s first Zero Emission Vehicle Summit, held in Birmingham, that she wants to see Britain “leading from the front and working with industries and countries around the world to spearhead change”. So what is happening in the UK, how and why?

EU Legislation - Moving towards a low-carbon economy in 2050

To keep global climate change below 2 degrees Celcius - the internationally agreed target to prevent the catastrophic consequences of global warming - the EU (which still includes the UK) is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.

Transport could reduce emissions by more than 60% by becoming more sustainable through greater vehicle efficiency, electric vehicles and cleaner energy (Moving towards a low-carbon economy in 2050  EUE-Lex  2011).

UK decarbonisation

Transport emissions

“Transport accounts for around a quarter of UK greenhouse gas emissions and affects air quality at the roadside. We’re working to reduce emissions by promoting public transport choices, supporting the market for innovative forms of transport and encouraging a move to cleaner and lower carbon vehicles.”  2010 to 2015 government policy: transport emissions policy paper, (published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government) 3 October 2012. Although this paper has since been withdrawn, the sentiment remains.

Since 2009, hundreds of policy papers, initiatives, advice to consumers, consultations and investigations (and their outcomes), etc. concerning transport emissions have been published by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV), Department for Transport (DfT) and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and DfT set out the UK’s plan for reducing roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations in 2017.

Investigations have also been carried out about the validity of claims of low vehicle emissions from manufacturers such as Volkswagen.

Office for Low Emission Vehicles

In November 2009, the UK Government set up the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) (Part of Department for Transport (DfT), and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)).

According to its website “The Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) is a team working across government to support the early market for ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEV). We are providing over £900 million to position the UK at the global forefront of ULEV development, manufacture and use. This will contribute to economic growth and will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution on our roads.”

Funding and incentives for technological innovations and their uptake 

The UK government has, in September 2018, pledged £106 million for research and development in zero emission vehicles, new batteries and low carbon technology.

Over several years, competitions have been run by the UK government to encourage the development of greener fuel technology   (including biomethane for transport from landfill and anaerobic digestion) and greener cars; and to encourage fleets to use hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.  

Tax benefits have been introduced for using ultra low emission vehicles; and Government spending reviews have included notes on increased support for the British ULEV market.  

The take-up of ULEVs in the UK was reviewed by the DfT and OLEV in 2015. 

Electric vehicle charging

OLEV’s website gives details of all the schemes for electric vehicle charging. Advice is given for householders and installers for the Homecharge scheme; the same for the Workplace charging scheme; on-On-street residential chargepoint scheme and the Ultra low emissions taxi infrastructure scheme. (Last updated August 2018).

The Dft Local Authority Electric chargepoint analysis 2017, was published in June 2018.

Types of transport


The Clean bus technology fund was launched in 2013 to help councils upgrade buses with new technology to reduce emissions in areas of poor air quality. March 2015 saw £3 million green bus funding to help clean up town and city air. An Ultra-low emission bus scheme was introduced in 2018 to speed up the introduction of ultra-low emission buses (ULEB) and thus improve air quality in urban areas.


An Ultra low emission taxi scheme was launched in  March 2015.


The government is keen to encourage cycling and has issued a number of documents and guidance about cycling including:

Cycling and walking investment strategy: setting the scene 17 December 2015
• Cycling and walking investment strategy  27 March 2016
Cycle to work scheme  28 October 2011
• Cycling grants and funding, various 2013-2015
Cycling infrastructure: framework for evaluating economic and social impacts 27 March 2016


The largest van fleet operators – including those for the utilities, retail, NHS and local government,  have declared that they aim to switch to zero emission vans.


Network Rail – has a sustainable development strategy 2013-2024. Emissions emanating from the rail transport infrastructure in the UK has been underestimated, but they have continued the electrification of the lines and, where that proved impossible, electrified the train itself by adding a lithium battery to a modified class 379 train. 

Northern Rail is committed to measuring their total carbon footprint and reducing the amount of gas-oil used in traction.

Virgin Trains achieved environmental management certification, covering all stations, trains and offices, in 2014. They have fitted electric car charging points to stations they manage, eg. Runcorn and Stafford. They aim to make “sure our impact on the environment is as small as possible”


Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) The CAA’s site states their role in relation to aviation and the environment. It advises the government on reducing the aviation industry’s carbon emissions, and the development of international initiatives such as emissions trading. It also helps with planning wind power in the UK.

Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO)

The RTFO requires suppliers of fossil fuels to ensure that a specified percentage of the road fuels they supply in the UK is made up of renewable fuels. As well as obliging fuel suppliers to meet targets for the volumes of biofuels supplied, the RTFO requires companies to submit reports on the carbon and sustainability of the biofuels. The RTFO order places an obligation on any supplier of road transport/NRMM fuel who supplies more than 450,000 litres in total of petrol, diesel or renewable transport fuel, to places in the UK, in an obligation period from 15 April one year to 14 April the following year.

Obligation percentages

The obligation is calculated as a percentage of fossil and unsustainable renewable fuel which result in the supply of renewable fuel being a certain percentage of overall road/NRMM fuel supply.

 Obligation year   Obligation percentage 
 Resultant renewable fuel supply
and all subsequent years
 4.9870%  4.7501% 

(NRMM= no-road mobile machinery (including inland waterway vessels which do not normally operate at sea), agricultural and forestry tractors, and recreational craft that do not normally operate at sea).

Information and statistics on biofuels -  includes information on the percentage of road fuel supplied in the UK that is made up of renewable fuel and well as information on its sustainability.
Novel low carbon transport fuels and the RTFO Independent report. 26 March 2015. The sustainability implications of novel low carbon transport fuels and how they might fit into the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation.

Local and regional government initiatives

Transport for London plans to reduce the impact of transport operations on the environment

Birmingham City Council has developed a network of electric vehicle charging points to help reduce the 25% of Birmingham’s CO2 emissions coming from road transport.

Transport for Greater Manchester is committed to “Making healthy, sustainable travel options the first choice” and is developing the Greater Manchester Low-Emission Strategy and Air Quality Action Plan.

Belfast City Council’s policy is to encourage cycling and walking, implement green transport initiative to minimise the impact of their vehicle fleet including replacing their fleet with lower emission vehicles.

Welsh Government is encouraging cycling and walking by making them safer and has identified budget for electric charging points

Transport Scotland “The Scottish Government has committed to almost complete decarbonisation of the road transport sector by 2050”.   

Further reading and major references

Transport emissions - policy -  link to a search for all the relevant policies issued by:
• Office for Low Emission Vehicles, 
• Vehicle Certification Agency, 
• Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, 
• Department for Transport,
• Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation Expert Advisory Group

Christian Brand. 'Beyond ‘Dieselgate’: Implications of unaccounted and future air pollutant emissions and energy use for cars in the United Kingdom Energy Policy. October 2016. 

Energy Insight: Decarbonisation of transport worldwide. EI Knowledge Service, June 2017.

Energy Insight details

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