The Road to net zero – Highways England’s plan for decarbonisation by 2050

England and Wales

In light of the UK’s transport decarbonisation plan, and the targets and ambitions required to meet the UK’s net-zero targets (the “Decarbonisation Plan”), Highways England has issued its comprehensive  roadmap for the rapid decarbonisation of England’s motorways and major A roads by 2050 (the “Roadmap”).

This is one of a number of CMS papers providing analysis and comment on other aspects of the Decarbonisation Plan: please see here in relation to the rail sector, and here in relation to EV charging and hydrogen fuelling.

Overview

Road travel is vital to the UK’s ambitions in the Decarbonisation Plan, with the Roadmap noting that almost nine out of ten passenger miles and 79% of freight goods in the UK travel by road. At the same time, roads are, compared with rail and other modes of transports, a relatively inefficient and high-carbon form of transportation. While the Decarbonisation Plan is set up to encourage modal shift towards greener transport, the importance of the road network to the UK’s people and economy means that overall net zero will not be achieved without net zero roads.

To reach net zero, the Roadmap focuses on Highways England’s three core commitments:

  1. Achieving net zero emissions for its own operations by 2030;

  2. Delivering net zero road maintenance and construction by 2040; and

  3. Supporting net zero carbon travel on England’s roads network by 2050.

Highways England’s Corporate emissions

  • 100% of Highways England’s electricity is to be bought by a certified renewable tariff from 2020;

  • 10% of Highways England’s electricity is to be generated by renewable sources on or near Highways England’s land by 2030;

  • More than three million trees are to be planted on or near Highways England’s land by 2030;

  • 70% of streetlights on Highways England’s roads are to use LEDs by 2027;

  • A 75% reduction in Highways England corporate emissions by 2025 (compared to the 2017/18 baseline);

  • 75% of Highways England’s cars and vans are to be electric or hybrid by 2025.

Maintenance & Construction Equipment Emissions

  • All construction plant and compounds are to be zero emissions by 2030;

  • Highways England’s key specifications for designers and contractors, the MCHW (Manual of Contract Documents for Highway Works) and DMRB (Design Manual for Roads and Bridges), are to impose net zero obligations on Highways England’s suppliers and contractors by 2022 and 2025 respectively;

  • The first near zero road scheme will start in 2025, and be operational by 2035;

  • A 0-10% reduction in emissions by 2025, a 40-50% reduction by 2030, a 70-80% reduction by 2035 and net zero by 2040;

  • A near zero construction roadmap to be published in 2022.

Road User Emissions

  • A proposed approach to zero carbon HGV trials is to be published by the end of 2022;

  • A blueprint for EV charging services on Highways England’s roads is to be published by 2023;

  • Implementing a strong modal shift programme, integrating rail, walking and cycling infrastructure into the road network.

Comment

Alongside the other elements of the Decarbonisation Plan, Highways England’s roadmap contains strong commitments to help England reach its net zero ambitions. However, where the plans for reducing emissions from corporate activities, and from maintenance and construction offer solid targets, the plans for road user emissions across England (the most significant element) will depend on the strength of blueprints and documents yet to be published, such as the proposed EV charging blueprint and programmes for modal shift.

While the Roadmap sets out a clear path for Highways England to become a net zero organisation, it is the detail of plans yet to be published, and their interaction with the wider government strategy, that will be the clearest indication of what a fully-decarbonised road network in England will look like. It will also be interesting to see whether this approach is replicated or even enhanced in Scotland, where significant roads projects are also in the pipeline.