Delivering Net Zero

18th May 2020

Delivering Net Zero

Delivering Net Zero: Bright Blue and WSP - My Contribution on Transport Decarbonisation

Who wants to go back to the daily madness of congestion, pollution & unhealthy commuting?

Imagine a Transport Strategy based on: ActiveTravel, CleanAir, ConnectedPlaces, and SmartBuses. 

Check out my essay as part of the Bright Blue “Delivering Net Zero” Book.



Bright Blue and WSP: Net zero more urgent than ever for government and business


Bright Blue, the independent think tank for liberal conservatism, and WSP, the leading engineering professional services firm, have today published a major essay collection, Delivering Net Zero, which outlines radical new ideas for how the UK can deliver on its net zero commitment by 2050, with contributions from nearly 40 leading chief executives, politicians, academics and thought leaders from across the private, public and third sectors.

The essay collection from Bright Blue and WSP argues that delivering net zero is both an environmental necessity and an economic opportunity. It rejects the argument that the transition to net zero requires vast amounts of government spending and intervention, highlighting instead the progress that has been made on decarbonisation to date, and could further be made in the future, through well-regulated markets with sensible incentives from government.

The essay collection offers analysis and ideas across nine key areas: transport; land; utilities; buildings; industry; waste; finance; government; and, innovation. The publication provides inspiration to politicians, policymakers, and practitioners in advance of the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 in Summer 2021 to implement innovative programmes and policies to ensure the UK’s market-based economy can meet its net-zero commitments. 

Bright Blue and WSP believe that COVID-19 has strengthened the case for action on the challenge of this century – climate change. Governments, businesses and communities need and will be expected to do more to mitigate and build resilience to disruptive crises, such as global warming and extreme weather events.

The collection includes contributions from Nigel Wilson (Chief Executive, Legal & General Group), John Holland-Kaye (Chief Executive, Heathrow Airport Ltd), Peter Jelkeby (Chief Executive, IKEA UK & Ireland), Tony Juniper CBE (Chair, Natural England), Christine McGourty (Chief Executive, Water UK), Richard Walker (Managing Director, Iceland Foods), Nicholas Boys Smith (Co-Chair, Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission), Graham Stuart MP (Minister for International Trade), George Freeman MP (Former Minister for Transport), Ben Houchen (Mayor, Tees Valley), Professor Michael Grubb (Professor of Energy and Climate Change, University College London), Barny Evans (Sustainable Places Director, WSP), and many more. 


My Essay Below: 


Driving green growth

Transport decarbonisation

George Freeman MP


The COVID-19 pandemic – and the state of emergency it has triggered across the world – is an urgent wake-up call to the implications of economic globalisation. When the immediate pandemic is through, we will need to have a serious conversation about the implications COVID-19 has had on international and national resilience of our increasingly global economy. That shouldn’t stop at the global supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE) or the impact of Chinese dietary customs on global biosecurity. The crisis of COVID-19 shines a fresh and alarming spotlight on the other major issue of global resilience: the risk of climate change.

As we face the immediate threat of large-scale death, disease, economic damage and societal disruption, the issue of climate change might seem irrelevant. Indeed, the combination of empty streets, clean air, satellite images of vanishing smog and the urgent need to restore global economic growth is already leading some to dismiss the green agenda as a luxurious indulgence we can ill afford. They are profoundly wrong.

We would be wiser to treat the COVID-19 crisis as a warning of what happens when we take resilience for granted. If we want to prevent  the disastrous rise in global temperature which scientists are telling us unambiguously is coming unless we take action, we need to make the post-COVID-19 recovery a moment to seriously embrace the economics of resilience at the heart of our economic system. And, specifically, to make the post-COVID-19 recovery one that is based on clean, smart, sustainable and resilient green growth.

Central to this is the key policy question of how to deliver on our  net zero commitments in a way which accelerates economic growth and job creation in new sectors whilst contributing to a healthier and more productive economy and society.

If – as I have argued elsewhere – the Brexit vote was a change moment requiring us to revisit our economic model as an increasingly finance and service-orientated economy serving the European bloc to embrace a more global trade-based economic model, then questions of biosecurity, resilience and sustainability become more important. In a world where low-cost Chinese and Asian developing economies take the lion’s share of mass manufacturing, the UK will need to build a strong global franchise based on our strengths in key sectors such as life science, agritech and cleantech: the technologies and innovations which will support sustainable economic growth. In the next 30 years, when the world goes through the agricultural and industrial revolutions we pioneered here in the UK over the last 300 years, it will need a host of new technologies to drive sustainable growth.

“The market for clean growth – whether technology, consulting or legal – is already huge and only set to get bigger”

On net zero, the key question is all about delivery. The UK has already accepted the case for action and for leadership. We have made the net zero targets legally binding. All our attention must look at how we convert that national and global goodwill into concrete action.

We have a basic choice ahead of us. Do we follow or do we lead? Following would mean doing just enough to stay out of trouble and hide in the pack. Leading means gripping this crisis and showing the world how to reach that net zero future. As an MP and citizen, I strongly believe it has to be the latter. Not just because of our global responsibility, but also because it’s good business.

“We would be wiser to treat the COVID-19 crisis as a warning of what happens when we take resilience for granted”

This has been the central theme of my career in both industry and politics since leaving Cambridge 35 years ago. Through a fifteen-year career in high growth technology, company venture capital and ten years in frontline politics – from being Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) at the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2010, Chair of the All Party Group on Agricultural Science and Technology and Inclusive Growth, through to Minister for Life Science and Agritech, UK Trade Envoy, Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board and most recently the UK’s first-ever Minister for the Future of Transport, leading our ‘Transport Decarbonisation Strategy’ – I know first-hand that we have a unique opportunity in the UK. No market is likely to be bigger than the market for clean energy alternatives to dirty, expensive and unsustainable fossil fuels.

As we leave the EU Single Market to become a more globally oriented trading economy, we need new markets we can plug into. The market for clean growth – whether technology, consulting or legal – is already huge and only set to get bigger.

If we use our net zero targets as the spur to a national economic mission to lead the world, we can lay the foundations for major new markets. Brexiteers need precisely this sort of opportunity. They should be grabbing it. There are huge opportunities for so-called ‘left-behind’ places like Teesside, parts of Northern Ireland and Humberside to become vibrant ‘New Energy Hubs’.

In decarbonisation there is a significant opportunity for the UK to help lead in the science and technology of clean growth. And after the successful decarbonising of our energy sector in the last decade, nowhere is this now more urgent than in transport. Alongside agriculture and housing, transport is the biggest emitting sector, responsible for 28% of our CO2 emissions.1

That’s why I was so delighted when the Prime Minister asked me to go to the Department for Transport to frame a 21st century ‘Transport Decarbonisation Strategy’ – which I’m delighted the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, rightly launched in March rather than delay as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

By embracing that strategy – and delivering it through a combination of metrics, digitalisation and place – I believe we now have the chance to lead the world. It is time to make our commitments a reality.

The UK ‘Transport Decarbonisation Strategy’ needs at its heart two key elements. First, a proper industrial strategy for UK leadership in the R&D, financing, testing, data collection and enlightened regulation of transport technology and innovation in the pipeline.

Second, a place-based  strategy  for  empowering  people  and  places around the country to embrace cleaner, greener, healthier transport choices.

For too long the UK political and policy debate has been conducted in silos. One group of activists making a passionate case for lower, slower growth and more tax and regulation to tackle polluters. And the other group making a lazily optimistic and complacent economic argument

– largely by entrenched interests who have much to lose from the disruptive effects of new entrants – that we can stand back and allow the market to adapt on its own to consumer demand.

We need to break the stale debate and silo’d ‘capture’ of the climate change debate and embrace a much more responsible and business-like mission to both drive growth and sustainability.

In the UK, I believe that means embracing both an active ‘Industrial Strategy for Technology Leadership’, but also a bold programme of devolution and freedom for local places to embrace the healthier travel options most households and neighbourhoods want.

If we do both, we have a chance of achieving the goal. One without the other – an industrial strategy without city and place-based leadership, or the reverse – will simply not work. It needs both to stand a chance of succeeding.

But how do we then deliver? What are the levers we can pull to make this happen? I believe there are three delivery mechanisms. First, place. Second, metrics. Third, digitalisation.

The importance of place needs to be put at the heart of UK transport policy. The modal structure of the Department for Transport (DfT) – four divisions by transport mode (aviation,  maritime, road and rail) – reflects a longstanding and disastrous separation of transport policymaking from the needs of places. Fundamentally, transport is all about connectivity of places. The main aim of all those using transport is about getting from A to B. Bad transport holds back people and places. People who use public transport care more about their local transport than national. But in the UK we develop policy – and delivery – through an overly centralised and silo’d model of modal separation.

This heavy traditional Whitehall functional model of departmental modal silos – road, rail, shipping and aviation – mitigates against both place-based solutions, local leadership and the uptake of innovation through Testbeds.

Highways England and Network Rail are largely place-blind. Their focus is on big national “schemes”. As national quangos they are accountable to civil servants in DfT silos, not the communities who are paying for and actually need the transport. But DfT is massively London-focused. The staffing ratio tells its own story: thousands of civil servants in the capital, and how may in the West Midlands? One.

This is a massive problem for delivering more enlightened and innovative transport systems, and the decarbonisation which will fail without it. We will not deliver decarbonisation unless we make the  UK a more attractive testbed for 21st century transport and mobility innovation.

To do that we must liberate and harness people’s willingness to do things for their own places more than for the government, and allow local leaders to try new approaches. We need to change the planning and development paradigm away from car dependency, and car and home ownership, and insist on much more joined-up place-based transport tech planning. We must break down the national stats and targets into smaller local regional bite sizes, including highlighting the best and spotlighting the worst practice. Finally, we must identify the key people and places where we need to deliver, as well as the ten dirtiest stations, motorways, ports, airports, and make people much more accountable.

The second key decarbonisation delivery pillar is metrics. Successful delivery against targets requires proper data and metrics. We will never deliver decarbonisation without clear metrics and data for place-based carrot and stick at both a government and personal level. We need clear rewards and penalties.

“We need to break the stale debate and silo’d ‘capture’ of the climate change debate and embrace a  much more responsible and business-like mission to both drive growth and sustainability”

As we have seen in healthcare, clear and trusted data has enormous power to drive changes in behaviour. Think of such simple yet life- changing innovations such as heartrate monitors and calorie counting. The transport decarbonisation agenda lacks any clear universal metrics or data. We need a global, universally respected metric. The UK has a huge opportunity to develop this metric and then lead the global sector of developing standards around it. A simple metric like ‘emissions per passenger kilometre’ (EPPK) would be completely transformational. 

By incorporating it into all modes and places as the metric, we could start to compare and drive progress and change. For example, it could be built into the local government funding settlement to create an incentive for councils to build more energy efficient homes. The third pillar is the power of digitalisation. Harnessing the power of digital is as important as – and goes hand in hand with – data and metrics. It is vital at all levels.

At a national level, digital signalling on the railways and digital road pricing and traffic management are all key to improving capacity and reducing emissions. At a regional and city level, clear data on the daily congestion and pollution patterns is key to managing the decrease of both. At a personal level, too, all the behavioural insights show people are much more likely to change habits when they can see the benefit. The more bespoke and real it can be – £100 at the end of the year or £10 the end of the month – the better. This insight inspired my work on a Green Carbon Citymapper app and the insistence that it should be at the heart of the DfT Transport Decarbonisation Strategy’

During my time as Minister, this approach – insisting that the stale silos of green or growth is tackled with a much more integrated plan for both industrial strategy leadership and place-based devolution – was being welcomed by both industry and green campaigners. It holds the possibility of a real win-win: unlocking both UK industrial R&D and technology leadership, healthier local transport choices, and planning to achieve our net zero legal targets.The level of support – from both industry and green campaigners – suggests this approach offers the best hope for UK leadership in this area. One thing is for certain. We simply cannot afford to dither or delay any longer.

Action must be taken now before it’s too late. Not just because the levels of congestion, pollution and obesity have risen to appalling   and genuinely unsustainable levels in the UK. But also because the COVID-19 crisis has revealed how shockingly vulnerable our globalised economy has become and that we need to be much more pro-active in building resilience into our post-COVID-19 recovery. The future is ours to shape. Together, it’s time to seize this unique opportunity for a more globally resilient model of post-COVID-19 economic growth.


George Freeman MP is the Member of Parliament for Mid Norfolk. He has served as Minster of State for the Future of Transport at the Department for Transport, Chair of the Number 10 Policy Board, Minister for Life Sciences at the Department of Health and Business, UK Trade Envoy and Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for Energy and Climate Change.


1. Department for Transport, “Decarbonising transport: setting the challenge”, https://assets. decarbonising-transport-setting-the-challenge.pdf (2020), 10.


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