Imperial College London

Urgent action is needed for heavy transport to meet net zero targets

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Air view of delivery trucks

Government and industry support is essential to producing a clear pathway for decarbonising the sector.

Researchers from the Imperial-Sainsbury’s Partnership have for the first time published a study which uses PEST-SWOT analyses of alternative fuels to produce detailed recommendations for decarbonising heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). 

They say that a multi-channel strategy which combines technological innovation, policy measures and industrial support is essential to developing alternative fuel technologies, reducing emissions, and achieving net zero targets.

According to their research, fleet operators should commence new vehicle trials by 2025, replace a significant amount of their lighter diesel trucks by 2030, and replace the remaining heavier truck fleet by 2035.

Decarbonising the heavy transport sector

The importance of reducing emissions in the heavy goods sector cannot be underestimated. Energy consumption due to heavy goods vehicles grew by over 50% between 2000 and 2005, and the transport sector currently accounts for 24% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions worldwide.

The authors claim that the current lack of policy measures and the infancy of technologies and associated infrastructure delays commercial uptake of low carbon options, and puts carbon mitigation targets at risk.

A multi-channel decarbonisation strategy with support from governments and industry, as well as innovations in technology, is needed to drive progress in this sector.

Alternative fuel sources

In their study, researchers carried out PEST-SWOT analyses of four different alternative fuel technologies - liquified natural gas (LNG), biomethane, electricity and hydrogen - against conventional diesel fleets. Alongside this, they incorporated literature reviews and engagement with industry on socio-political and commercial readiness issues that influence decision-makers.

"Our approach adds to the existing literature by highlighting the system-specific challenges to address to fast-track decarbonisation." Dr Nixon Sunny Department of Chemical Engineering

They found that LNG and biomethane will have a limited long-term impact on long haul vehicles owing to limited infrastructure, lower efficiency of LNG engines, and competition for biomethane from other sectors. However, both are feasible short-term options while zero-emission vehicle technologies are developed.

Battery electric vehicles (BEV) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) hold strong potential as alternatives, however both are currently limited by technology-specific challenges including lack of supportive infrastructure, long charging times and limited distance ranges. The authors note that the market for BEVs in passenger and light-duty transport is developing rapidly, which could extend to the HGV sector with continued innovation.

Finally, they note that hydrogen, as an alternative fuel, currently represents a niche market with limited infrastructure, and requires substantial government support to achieve large-scale deployment and cost parity with diesel trucks.

Co-author Dr Nixon Sunny said: "Traditionally, researchers have mainly focussed on total cost of ownership or environmental impact analyses of alternative vehicles. This approach, although insightful, often neglects the key barriers in the wider system and presents a skewed set of findings. Our approach adds to the existing literature by highlighting the system-specific challenges to address to fast-track decarbonisation."

Time sensitivities  

Authors of the study conclude that time is of the essence if the HGV sector is to reach net zero targets. Policy interventions are critical to drive the development of low-carbon options and provide incentives for industry to switch from diesel to alternative fuels. These interventions require international alignment to ensure that the HGV market is supported with access to the necessary refuelling and recharging infrastructure abroad. 

Engagement from industry itself is critical and researchers recommend they take a multi-channel approach to technologies to mitigate the risk of investments. The study recognises that the infancy of technologies is a barrier to investments and recommends trialling zero-emission vehicles in the near-term. Moreover, the authors present a roadmap to scale up these technologies based on national and international-level policy commitments.

Co-author Professor Nilay Shah added: “This work demonstrates the importance of taking a systems approach to decarbonisation. It also highlights the need for academia, industry and government to collaborate closely on the path to net zero.”

Next steps  

Following on from this piece of work, the researchers will strive to develop comprehensive total cost of ownership models for the heaviest range of logistic fleets as this sector is the hardest to decarbonise. Co-author Dr Salvador Acha said: “We shall work with industry and policy makers in defining bespoke models that support fleet operators to gain more confidence in their decarbonisation journey.” 

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'Strategic transport fleet analysis of heavy goods vehicle technology for net-zero targets' by Kaying Li et al. is published in Energy Policy.

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Sara West

Sara West
Department of Chemical Engineering

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Email: sara.west@imperial.ac.uk

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