How do you get around? Decarbonising transport to support net zero

Sebastien Lechanoine writes about his role at the Office for Low Emissions Vehicles.

Disclaimer: the views in this blog post are those of the individual and do not represent the views of HM Government.

An electric car charging on a city centre street.

Photo by Andrew Roberts on Unsplash

In 1879, Karl Benz patented the first reliable two-stroke internal combustion engine. Since then, despite some huge leaps in engineering and engine performance, the basic principles of vehicle engines have not changed that much – they remain internal combustion engines. Yet we are progressively starting to see a transition in how we drive and fuel our vehicles, which I believe is driven by a greater understanding of the dangers of climate change and greenhouse gases. At a local level, this is also driven by a much more tangible concern– air quality.

In 2019, the UK officially set a net-zero emissions target by 2050, making history in the process. The year before, transport emissions accounted for around 28% of domestic UK greenhouse gases and became the largest emitting sector. Therefore, decarbonising all forms of transport is essential if we are to become a net zero country, and this has become a major priority for the Department for Transport.

It’s quite exciting to be involved in this effort. I work at the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV as we love acronyms in Government) which is a joint unit reporting to both DfT and BEIS ministers. Our purpose is to support the decarbonisation of road transport – and to say there is plenty to do would be an understatement. Currently, the focus is very much on Electric Vehicles (EVs) – Government is currently consulting on bringing forward the end to the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles to 2035, or earlier if a faster transition appears feasible, as well as including hybrids for the first time.

My role sits within the EV infrastructure policy team – if everyone who owns a car will be owning an EV in future, they will need to be able to charge their vehicles, and charging an EV is very different to filling up at a petrol station. It’s more similar to charging your mobile phone, with a range of charging options depending on your needs. Need a quick charge? Go to a rapid station. Want to charge slowly but in the convenience of your home? Just roll into your driveway, plug in and enjoy your evening at home.

But what if you don’t have a driveway, as around 40% of UK households don’t? Then what? The ‘on-street’ issue is what I work on specifically and I could write pages about it (in fact I often do at work). It has also taught me a huge amount about ‘environmental’ policy – here are some of the key things I have learned:

  • Re-define what you think counts as ‘environmental’ policy. I’ve had to grapple with the intricacies of local government planning systems and the complexities of the energy system in my role, and at times it’s easy to lose sight of the wider picture. Like electrifying boilers, it may not always sound sexy but it is important – the ‘boringly transformative’ as Michael Gove has recently said.

  • Tug on one string and you will find it attached to many other things, to botch a well-known quote. Who knew that building regulations could play such a key part in supporting EV uptake? How do we make sure we are getting people walking and cycling as well? As we transition towards a net zero economy, we will need a greater understanding of the various interconnections that exist today, and how to ensure that policies in one area do not lead to perverse effects elsewhere.

  • Central government can’t do everything. It can provide leadership, but local government, companies small and big, private investors, charities and not-for-profits are all needed to reach our wider goals. How do you make sure that Government is providing the right level of support?

With net zero high on the government agenda, it’s a fascinating time to be working in decarbonisation. Change can come in surprising ways and being able to embrace this and listen to those on the ground is key in my role. It’s not about going for what may seem easiest, but gaining an understanding of what could work for all involved – and doing all this at pace. It’s a great place to be, and I encourage you to join if you want – we’re not short of work!

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