In the second of our series focusing on Manchester’s aim to become a zero carbon city region, we take a look at transport and travel. It is well accepted that transport is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing just less than a quarter of all UK domestic emissions in 2020. Emissions from cars and taxis account for more than half of this figure.

Greater Manchester is not alone in facing a significant challenge, but it has clear objectives in response, which mirror those being pursued at a national level.  For example, in the Department for Transport publication ‘Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge,’ the UK Government has set itself an ambitious target of zero emissions across all modes of transport by 2050. The publication anticipates achievement being attained through a combination of facilitating the transition to large-scale use of zero-emission vehicles, and supported by the implementation of a meaningful and effective refuelling infrastructure, including the installation of 300,000 public charge points by 2030.

How does Manchester hope to achieve its aims?

Within its own operations, the Council has committed itself to reducing direct emissions by replacing its fleet with electric vehicles, and hopes to reduce its emissions by between 35%- 45% by 2025.

The city region is eager to encourage sustainable and accessible travel options across its boroughs but beyond its own activities, the wholesale uptake of zero-emission vehicles faces a number of significant logistical hurdles. For example, electric vehicles require somewhere to re-charge and whilst for many it is possible for their vehicles to be charged at home overnight, within Manchester approximately 60% of homes do not have access to off-street parking.

For those who do not have access to home charging, their only option will be to access the public network. Pending the development of improved battery technology and mileage, the fundamental difficulty of availability of charging stations is not easily overcome.

To meet objectives it is expected that by 2030 there may need to be upwards of 3,000 additional public charge points within the Manchester region. Manchester has published the EV Charging Infrastructure Strategy which sets out its role in providing more charge points, but the Council is reluctant to install on-street charge points as these can:

“cause obstructions to pavements and street clutter, and we do not support the use of cables crossing the pavement to charge vehicles at the roadside… as these can cause trip hazards.”

Recent figures indicate that Manchester is perhaps some way behind other regions in the UK in this regard, with around 24 charging points per 100,000 population, compared with the UK average of 42 per 100,000.

Although there is no statutory duty to provide public charge points, Manchester is looking at opportunities within council-owned car parks to expand the public network for residents and businesses, and within the last few months there have been announcements to construct charging ‘oases’ within the city to address some of these concerns. However, replicating the service provided by petrol stations is not without some hindrance. Whilst there are a number of different charging systems available, with varying recharge speed from a few minutes up to several hours, were Manchester to be successful in its aim then it will need to ensure that re-charging is able to take place on demand and within a reasonable period of time.

Central Government plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 are well under way, but by contrast the uptake of electric vehicles remains sluggish. For example, by the end of March 2022 there were still less than 2,000 plug-in cars registered in Manchester, equating with around only 1% of the total number of cars registered. This is below the UK average of 2.4%.  Whilst the transition will not happen overnight, to enable individuals to move freely, efficiently and at low-cost, whilst also being environmentally friendly, there needs to be a viable alternative to current combustion engines.

Hydrogen is being considered as an alternative fuel source although the enabling technology still requires refinement and, in addition, there are very obvious safety risks arising from the storage and use of this fuel. Current plans for hydrogen fuel appear to be restricted to the haulage sector, and do not extend to domestic and residential travel. Therefore, this is not something which will necessarily help to achieve objectives in the shorter term.

Barriers to implementation

The aims are laudable and are to be welcomed.  However, despite their increasing presence, electric vehicles are far from the predominant mode of transport and the impact of the Government’s intended ban on the sale of fossil fuel vehicles will not be fully appreciated for many decades yet. Likewise, the transition to a net zero transport network is likely to be many years away.  The fact that success will not be achieved overnight is not a reason for the objectives not to be pursued in the interim, but implementation must be mindful of the very real logistical problems that need to be overcome.

There are also concerns as to how ‘green’ electric vehicles actually are, and the level of ‘carbon debt’ created during their manufacture. For example, at present not only are electric vehicles generally more expensive to buy, but their production requires the input of significant volumes of fossil fuels. In addition, questions remain as to how electric vehicles, specifically their batteries, are to be stored and disposed of at end of life.

The electricity required to power electric vehicles also needs to be sourced from within the national grid, and the mass charging of vehicles at peak times is likely to put a strain on the system. Although wind and solar and renewable energy sources are currently active within the network, the proportion of energy generated by them is not only intermittent but also lags far behind the energy generated through fossil fuel usage.

What can businesses do to assist?

There are no statutory requirements at present for businesses to contribute to net zero through assisting and enabling a greener transport network.  Whilst grants are available, the transition to green and sustainable alternative fuels remains a costly option, which is also accompanied by logistical issues and numerous other considerations.

That being said, the objectives have been stated loud and clear and, in order to position themselves, businesses may want to consider the feasibility of alternative fuel and transport. For example, car share and cycle to work schemes may be one option, but it is accepted that these may not always be possible or practicable depending on the nature of the work undertaken by an organisation.

Alternatively, business may wish to consider providing electrical charge points and, for those involved in the haulage sector, it may be worthwhile exploring the availability and applicability of hydrogen to their operations, despite technology realistically still being a few years away from wholesale adoption.

As corporate ESG scores increase in importance, especially following the implementation of various sustainability reporting requirements, businesses would be well advised to give careful consideration to actively implementing ‘green’ measures within their day to day operations, including in respect of their transport and travel needs.

Such changes will not come overnight, and will require a concerted effort to achieve them, as well as behavioural and cultural change.

Our next commentary piece will consider how behaviour may be influenced and shaped to assist the transition to green technology. To read our first blog in the series, visit https://pannonecorporate.com/manchesters-move-towards-net-zero/

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