To achieve a net zero future, we need to make tough decisions. Now is the time to face them.
It can be tempting to view climate change as a challenge for the future, impacting the next generation. It isn’t – it’s a clear and present problem today, as any public transport operator will attest.
Those of us running bus and rail services are highly attuned to the weather. Our customers, quite rightly, expect to get to work, or to conduct their everyday lives, come sunshine, rain or snow.
Extreme weather events are becoming more common. In the UK, the long winter freeze brought by Beast from the East was a wake-up call back in 2018. And in the south-east, landslips caused by heavy rain have increased in frequency – sometimes blocking or disrupting railway lines.
Tackling climate change is by far the biggest existential challenge facing business. The Go-Ahead Group, as a transport operator, needs to do two things – be ready to deal with the consequences, and do its part to any rise in global temperature.
So we are taking decisive action. Go-Ahead intends to cut its carbon emissions by 75% by 2035, and to reach net zero by 2045 – an ambitious yet deliverable timetable, getting us there a full five years ahead of the UK Government’s target.
It won’t be easy. We will need to convert our entire UK fleet of 5,000 buses from diesel to zero emission energy – primarily electric or hydrogen power. Our rail services, Southeastern and Govia Thameslink Railway, are already primarily electric but will need to be more energy efficient, with the last diesel trains phased out.
Within our business, we intend to cut water use by a quarter and to recycle 60% of waste by 2025. Our premises have already been switched to renewable energy tariffs, and we’ve introduced incentives to employees to preserve fuel, or to come up with ways to save energy.
Go-Ahead is already making good progress. Since 2016, we’ve cut overall emissions by 22% in spite of expansion of the group into Norway, Germany, Singapore and Ireland.
We’re the UK’s largest electric bus operator. Smart technology is helping – in Brighton, our geofenced buses automatically switch into zero-carbon mode when they enter polluted city centre streets. We’ve even introduced a fleet of air filtering buses in Southampton which clean the air as they move by extracting particulate matter from the atmostphere.
Our targets are science-based and are consistent with the overall mission set by the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050. The Carbon Disclosure Project has rated our business at A minus. Yet we would be the first to admit that these measures won’t be enough.
Climate change is the number one challenge facing our society.
Transport accounts for about a quarter of carbon emissions. Within that portion, 55% of emissions are from private cars. Just 3% are from buses and 1% from rail. So companies such as Go-Ahead can, and must, decarbonise our public transport fleets, the far bigger challenge is to get people to leave their cars at home.
That will involve a transformation in public habits. It means encouraging more active travel – including walking and cycling. It could mean taking congestion charging and road pricing more seriously, in spite of the political challenges that entails.
It also means providing more priority to public transport, which is part of the solution in greener transport. A single double-decker bus can take 75 private cars off the road, so it’s a no brainer in terms of reducing emissions.
More bus lanes and greater priority at traffic lights would help. So will enhanced partnerships to improve co-ordination between transport operators and local authorities, as set out under the Government’s “Bus Back Better” strategy.
There are plans afoot for clever measures such as neatly designed mobility hubs which will allow people to leave their bikes safely, or plug in an electric vehicle, and switch seamlessly to a bus or a train.
Climate change is the number one challenge facing our society. Addressing it will involve some difficult decisions – and is going to take investment, a change in attitudes and some political courage.
For a net zero future, our mantra for getting around must change. It should be: walk or cycle where you can. Alternatively, take public transport. Only use your car when it’s absolutely necessary.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House’s morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.