Innovating solutions to decarbonise transport and industry

In collaboration with The University of Manchester, researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change worked alongside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and a team of modellers at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency to devise ways to reduce carbon emissions in the transport and industry sectors.

Exploring the challenges of the transport and industry sectors

Keeping global warming below the 2°C outlined in the Paris Agreement requires rapid and complete decarbonisation of energy systems. Current technologies, however, can only reduce the emissions of transport and industry to some extent. With the transport and industry sectors experiencing continued growth, the reductions generated by these interventions are still overwhelmed by new emissions and would need non-technological measures to reduce emissions in the short term. Examples of this include reduced demand for air travel, slower shipping speeds, and improved logistics.

Despite promising low-carbon technologies on the horizon, such as hydrogen-fuelled transport, electrified trucks, aircraft and biofuels (for example, synthetic paraffinic kerosene and bioethanol), many of the technological solutions are still in their infancy and more time is needed for development and to ensure affordability at scale.

Tackling decarbonisation in the high-emission sectors

Working with BEIS, researchers at Tyndall Manchester led by Dr Maria Sharmina identified new ways to accelerate decarbonisation in these high-emitting sectors, using a two-phased approach.

Firstly, by applying economy-wide modelling of 1.5°C and 2°C scenarios to four critical ‘difficult to decarbonise’ sectors – including aviation, shipping, road freight transport and industry – they were able to develop and apply a novel framework to analyse and track mitigation progress. Through this they discovered that the greatest reductions came from cuts in CO2 intensity and energy intensity, without significant changes in the activity of each sector.

Secondly, they identified a range of additional measures and policy levers that – while not explicitly captured in modelled scenarios – could contribute significant emission reductions through lowering the activity of the critical sectors. These include less air travel (aviation), reduced transportation of fossil fuels (shipping), more locally produced goods combined with high load factors (road freight) and a shift to a circular economy (industry).

Recommendations for immediate reductions

To facilitate less and lower-carbon travel, the project called for:

  • improved connectivity between low-carbon modes (for example integrated tickets for trains and buses);
  • phasing out short-haul air travel;
  • legislating speed restrictions on ships globally;
  • reducing demand for freight through distributed manufacturing and circular economy measures.

It also advised that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to enact lasting CO2 emissions reductions, by switching from frequent air travel to other transport modes and online interactions.

The project also recommended that relevant UN agencies start tracking mitigation progress by monitoring key elements of the framework (CO2 intensity, energy efficiency and demand for sectoral activity, as well as the underlying drivers) as a matter of urgency.

Driving policy change

The project was commissioned by BEIS to inform the UK government’s net-zero legislation. Throughout its duration, the latest findings were presented to BEIS civil servants. Dr Maria Sharmina was invited to join the expert panel at the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum policy conference and then at the Mechanical and Aerospace Industrial Advisory Board for companies in the sector.

To carry this research through into policy impact, Dr Sharmina has been seconded as a Senior Academic Advisor to the Government Office for Science and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to further inform the government’s net zero strategy.