After two decades of hard work to decarbonise UK road transport, there’s a great deal to be proud of

There are around 2,000 zero emission buses in service in the UK today, representing around 5% of the UK’s total fleet

BY Andy Eastlake

Though I’ve become less focused on birthdays (especially as I’ve got older!) I do remember my 20th (some time in the eighties!). These occasions do provide a prompt to reflect on what’s gone before. It’s hard to believe (for me, at least) but Zemo has reached the grand old age of 20 this year. Zemo’s teenage years were in a vibrant, dynamic and ever changing transport sector and as the partnership reaches maturity, it’s a moment to take stock of the dramatic changes we’ve helped to stimulate through collaboration.

In its two decades, Zemo (formerly as LowCVP) has seen five general elections, six prime ministers, 12 secretaries of state for transport (five Labour and seven Conservative) and even more ministers of state (of all flavours) with lead responsibility for transport decarbonisation.

We’ve seen many changes of political leadership and significant challenges, including phases of austerity, political uncertainty and almost unprecedented turbulence. However, despite attacks from some quarters, governments since 2003 have undoubtedly, bought into the cross-party consensus on the need to tackle the causes of climate change and bring forward policy prescriptions to decarbonise road transport, one of the more difficult sectors of the economy to tackle.

The 2008 Climate Change Act was a pivotal moment. The Act committed the UK Government by law to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050

The 2008 Climate Change Act was a pivotal moment. The Act committed the UK Government by law to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. The Act established the Climate Change Committee – a body that Zemo has worked closely with over the years – to monitor and report on progress towards the legal targets.

In 2019, the Climate Change Act was strengthened when the UK became the first major economy to commit to a ‘net zero’ target by 2050. (At the end of last year, around 140 countries had announced or were considering net zero targets, covering close to 90% of global emissions.)

Key moments in domestic transport-related climate policy have come hard and fast in recent years. In 2020, the government took the historic step of announcing the end of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 and all ICE hybrid versions by 2035. In 2021, the government followed up with the announcement that no new emitting heavy goods vehicles would be sold after 2040 (and smaller trucks by 2035). In 2022, consultations (for which the government is still to issue full responses) there were proposals to end the sale of non-zero emission buses and coaches, and powered light vehicles too.

The overall plan is that sales of all new emitting road vehicles will end at least a decade before the 2050 deadline set by the Climate Change Act and stock turnover should mean that there are very few ICE vehicles left to produce emissions from the tailpipe on the UK’s roads by 2050 (and we’ll make sure that any that remain are powered by low or zero carbon fuels, of course).

The 2021 Transport Decarbonisation Plan set out the government’s decarbonisation ambitions and commitments for all transport sectors. It included several policy prescriptions that Zemo and partner organisations had proposed or for which collaborative activities convened by the Partnership had laid the foundations.

Reflecting on Zemo’s role in the UK’s progress along the ‘road to zero’ over the last 20 years, there are several highlights which relate directly to the passenger transport sector.

Early in the chronological list of Zemo’s ‘Top 20’ achievements was the Partnership’s role in establishing key, independent structures which are now working effectively to ease the way to net zero transport

Early in the chronological list of Zemo’s ‘Top 20’ achievements (see below) was the Partnership’s role in establishing key, independent structures which are now working effectively to ease the way to net zero transport. Examples of this are the UK’s Centre of Excellence for Low Carbon and Fuel Cell Technologies (CENEX) which is a not-for-profit organisation, focusing very effectively on breaking down barriers to transport decarbonisation. Zemo (as LowCVP) also provided input into the Low Carbon Innovation Strategy which paved the way for future Innovation UK funding. Later work led to the creation of the Advanced Propulsion Centre in 2013 which now leads initiatives to accelerate the industrialisation of green technologies for vehicles.

In the early days, the partnership played a key role in ensuring that biofuels brought to market are renewable and environmentally beneficial, with ground-breaking work on sustainability standards, underpinning regulations for the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) which has ratcheted up the amount of renewable fuel added to all retail petrol and diesel. (Then) LowCVP input was central to the seminal Gallagher Review which covered the indirect effects of biofuels and which was a key influence on later policy.

More recently, Zemo has followed up earlier work on renewable fuels, introducing the Renewable Fuels Assurance Scheme which provides independent advice on fuels’ greenhouse gas emission savings and raw material provenance, helping to improve operator confidence and trust in the sustainability performance of fuels like HVO and biomethane.

A big impact on buses

It has been Zemo’s work in the bus sector that has had the most direct impact on mass passenger transport. (The partnership’s Bus Working Group actually met for the first time in December 2002, before the official launch of LowCVP in 2003 – such was the energy and appetite for collaboration in the sector!)

From around 2009, the partnership has laid the foundations for the UK’s success in decarbonising buses, playing a central role in the ‘bus innovation life-cycle’. The partnership, with its members, has been central in establishing the parameters for all the key UK Government grant schemes to incentivise low and zero emission bus uptake and has underpinned these with industry-supported certification and accreditation processes. Our terminology has evolved in parallel with technology advances; from the original Green Bus Funds to low carbon (LCEB), ultra-low emission (ULEB) and now zero emission bus (ZEB and ZEBRA) schemes, we have constantly raised the bar – and the market has responded.

The partnership has also worked to ensure that the government spends taxpayers money wisely and that its policies don’t undermine each other. Zemo, for example, supported the update to the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) to align with the government’s overall environment policies. The partnership also worked with government to develop an accreditation scheme for repowering buses to zero emissions (ZEVRAS) to enable operators to claim the significant BSOG ZEB uplift.

With support through the partnership’s very active Bus Working Group, we have carried the word to bus operators with ongoing series of regional, low and zero emission bus workshops and published several (regularly updated) ‘low and zero emission bus guides to help spread best practice and learning across the industry.

The UK’s policy on bus decarbonisation is widely recognised as having been a real success. The UK is now outperforming Europe on zero emission bus uptake

The UK’s policy on bus decarbonisation is widely recognised as having been a real success. The UK is now outperforming Europe on zero emission bus uptake. According to Zemo analysis, an average of 513 new zero emission buses (ZEBs) have started operations in the UK over the last three years and there were a total of 639 in 2022. For the last two completed years, ZEB registrations accounted for close to 50% of all buses registered in the UK and the prospects look good for a significant majority of bus uptake in 2023 to be zero (tailpipe) emission, with battery electric vehicles continuing to be the leading technology used. There are around 2,000 ZEBs in service in the UK today, representing around 5% of the UK’s total fleet. By 2025/26, Zemo expects this figure to be 10%.

A recent survey by the Dutch consultancy Chatrou CME Solutions has the UK at the top of a 31-nation league table for uptake of battery electric buses.

Zemo is now beginning to focus on decarbonising the coach and minibus sectors, seeking to emulate the formula that has proved successful so far for buses.

Also amongst Zemo’s ‘Top 20’ is the partnership’s work on retrofit accreditation which has enabled operators of existing vehicles to comply with Clean Air Zone standards. The Clean Vehicle Retrofit Accreditation Scheme (CVRAS) addresses the air pollution emissions from buses and coaches as well as heavy goods vehicles, mini-buses, taxis and vans.

So, as we reflect on 20 years of hard, challenging work to decarbonise the UK’s road transport, there’s a great deal to be proud of – in particular for members of our bus community.

I do hope some readers will be able to be with us at City Hall on June 15 at our ‘Zemo20:Zero’ anniversary conference. There’s certainly been much progress, especially in the drive to decarbonise buses, but a great deal remains to be done together, so do ‘stay on the bus’ with us for the rest of the journey to zero emissions mobility.



Highlights of Zemo’s work in accelerating road transport’s transition to net zero…

    1. Helping buyers make the ‘greener’ choice (2005)
    LowCVP* launches the colour-coded New Car Fuel Economy Label. (Version for second-hand cars introduced in 2010).

    2. Laying foundations for future success (2005-onwards)
    LowCVP and partners establish UK’s Centre of Excellence for Low Carbon and Fuel Cell Technologies (CENEX). Input into Low Carbon Innovation Strategy, paves way for Innovation UK funding. Later work with government and partners leads to creation of Advanced Propulsion Centre (2013), to accelerate industrialisation of green technologies for vehicles.

    3. Ensuring that biofuels are ‘green’ (2008)
    LowCVP work on sustainability standards underpins the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO).

    4. Deepening government-stakeholder collaboration (2009-10)
    Partnership transitions to become jointly-funded by members and government.

    5. Leading on clean buses (2009-onwards)
    LowCVP/Zemo supports establishment of UK Government grant schemes including the Green Bus Funds, LEB, ULEB and ZEBRA schemes, underpinned by industry-supported certification and accreditation processes. Supports revision of Bus Service Operators Grant to align with government environment policy. UK leads Europe on low emission bus uptake.

    6. Focusing on the full life-cycle (2010-onwards)
    LowCVP leads ‘Beyond the Tailpipe’ drive for full LCA (life-cycle assessment) of greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

    7. Driving the market for electric vans (2011)
    Research managed by LowCVP leads to launch of Plugged-In Vans grant programme.

    8. Leading on truck decarbonisation (2011-12)
    Working with key stakeholders, LowCVP publishes major report on barriers to the adoption of low carbon HGVs. Work leads to £9.5m Low Carbon Truck Programme.

    9. Cutting ‘greenwash’ (2012-13)
    LowCVP with SMMT and ISBA issue influential ‘Best practice principles for environmental claims in marketing’.

    10. Encouraging leadership and innovation (2013-18)
    Low Carbon Champions Awards celebrate achievement in road transport decarbonisation.

    11. Groundbreaking research (2014)
    LowCVP publishes ‘Investing in the Low Carbon Journey’- lessons from the first decade of UK policy on the road to 2050. Motor industry shows we can have both ‘green’ and growth.

    12. Laying foundations for renewable fuels uptake (2015)
    LowCVP-convened Transport Energy Taskforce reviews future targets for GHG emissions and renewable fuels. Recommendations adopted by government through the RTFO.

    13. Cutting emissions from current vehicles (2016)
    LowCVP establishes accreditation scheme for retrofits (CVRAS).

    14. Joining the climate and air quality agendas (2016-17)
    Partnership leads ‘Lower Carbon, Cleaner Air’ initiative bringing climate and air quality campaigns closer together.

    15. Paving the way for green truck trials (2018-onwards)
    Partnership work on emissions testing provides basis for Government incentive programmes, leads to ZERF and Low Emission Freight Trials.

    16. Right vehicle for the right use (2018-onwards)
    Partnership work with industry on PLV (powered light vehicles) is recognised in the 2021 Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

    17. Increasing trust in renewable fuels (2021)
    Zemo’s new Renewable Fuels Assurance Scheme provides independent advice on fuels’ GHG emission savings and raw material provenance.

    18. Bringing transport and energy together (2019-22)
    Zemo convenes highly influential EVET (EV Energy Taskforce); ground-breaking collaboration to maximise benefits from the introduction of EVs for the UK’s energy system.

    19. Cutting carbon through renewable fuels (2021)
    Zemo’s work over many years leads to successful introduction of E10 petrol in UK.

    20. Influencing the agenda (2004-2023)
    Zemo/LowCVP Annual Conferences and Parliamentary events are leading fixtures in the transport decarbonisation calendar.

* Zemo Partnership re-branded and changed its name in 2021 from Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andy Eastlake was appointed as Chief Executive of Zemo Partnership in 2021 having been Managing Director (of LowCVP) since 2012.

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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