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Government must support work on sustainable fuels beyond EVs, say MPs

Peter Stonham
08 March 2023

The Government needs to change its approach in not backing specific technology solutions to decarbonise the UK’s transport sector, or risk failing its targets for cutting emissions and decarbonisation, says the House of Commons Transport Committee.

The committee wants support to be given to the most promising new fuel options particularly those it calls “drop-in sustainable fuels for existing vehicles”. Direction, guidance and regulation from the DfT in respect of these fuels was urgently required.

In its Fuelling the Future report the committee urges the government to move beyond its “deliberately technology agnostic” mindset, as stated in its 2019 Technology Innovation Strategy.

“We were told by witnesses that this has been a barrier to investment in decarbonisation technologies due to the financial risk posed to private companies who invest in infrastructure for a technology that may not be the eventual ‘winner’.”

The Government should therefore change its policy to one of ‘targeted technology investment’, allowing it the flexibility to make strategic investments in new technologies that offer evidenced solutions to lowering emissions, and giving the private sector more confidence to invest in its own infrastructure.

The Government’s 2021 Transport Decarbonisation Plan outlined the pathway for the transport sector to be net zero by 2050, to be primarily achieved by a combination of modal shift and alternative decarbonisation technologies.

But the cross-party committee state that the Department for Transport has chosen to take a neutral stance on which technologies it believes industry should focus on developing, in order for those carbon-cutting targets to be achievable.

While recognising the importance of electrification of transport, the committee is keen to see more support for development work on alternative fuels for aviation, rail and road vehicles.

Transport committee chair Iain Stewart MP said for aviation, widely seen as one of the most high-polluting modes of transport – the government should invest in sustainable aviation fuels to galvanise innovation and progress in the sector and for the rail sector as well as pushing forward with projects for electrification, it should identify alternative lower- carbon motive power solutions where full electrification is not economically viable.

‘Drop-in sustainable fuels needed for existing vehicles’

The potential of sustainable fuels—biofuels and synthetic fuels—has been overlooked in the decarbonisation debate, says the committee.

The key benefit is their ‘drop- in’ capabilities, meaning they are usable in existing vehicles. They can be engineered over time to improve efficiency and reduce particulates and other emissions, while taking advantage of ever-more efficient engine technology. They can also be blended with fossil fuels until production ramps up sufficiently to replace them.

Various types of these fuels are already in production worldwide, says the committee report. Providing them to existing private cars that will remain on the road for some time “seems a sensible and economically sound approach, making the best use of legacy assets.” The current legislative framework, however, focused only on tailpipe emissions and did not account for carbon savings elsewhere in the lifecycle.

The committee believes the Government is currently “succumbing to groupthink and putting all its eggs in one basket: battery EVs.” Not everyone could afford to replace their current car with an EV, nor easily charge one at home. There were also questions over the adequacy of infrastructure and the use of raw materials to produce the necessary batteries.

“The huge potential for sustainable fuels to provide a low-carbon option for conventional engines must be further explored.”

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