BLOG: With freight, we must not miss the good by waiting on the perfect

September 18th 2020

Whilst there remains uncertainty  regarding how the country will emerge after COVID-19, one thing we can rely on is the country's need to produce, trade and supply goods.

The majority of freight is currently carried on our roads.

Some of these lorry movements will be generated exogenously by the UK's reliance on an import based supply chain and growth in deep sea ports but most will consist of inbound freight movements destined for the Heartland.

Although these journeys are essential to fulfilling the requirements of the regional economy, an increase in road freight will see a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, with the challenge most acute for long-haul lorry movements.

The challenge is that until now the freight sector has operated with little public sector intervention, driven primarily by cost and speed and not environmental obligations. I argue that in order to deliver the scale of growth envisaged for this region, a strategic approach to reducing the environmental impact of the freight transport is required.

On the understanding that planning for a wholesale reduction in carbon emissions associated with freight is a pre-requisite for economic and environmental success, the pathway to decarbonisation must be multi-modal, whilst also considering the interfaces freight has with land-use planning to shorten haulage movements.

Without action there is a risk that a once-in a generation opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint of freight, bound for or travelling through the Heartland is missed. In deciding what action to take we need to accept reality: the pathway to full electric HGV is not certain and despite research into alternative fuels, the prognosis for a zero carbon replacement for a 44 tonne lorry is discouraging.

It is therefore essential we begin to think of freight decarbonisation as a 'system' that promotes medium/long distance trips being made by electric rail with final delivery by battery lorry or where appropriate e-cargo bike. Decarbonisation through these means requires as much focus on policy as is currently afforded to cleaner traction by the private sector.

Delaying investment in the rail network in favour of waiting for a technological breakthrough risks running down the clock, so where there is a tried-and-tested low carbon option we should back it. Whether that's infill of railway electrification schemes or doubling down on the supply, regulation and incentives that increase the uptake of electric vans, including prototyping light trucks.

 Let us not miss the good by waiting on the perfect.

Antony Swift is a Project Lead at England's Economic Heartland