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Transition codesign for purposive road freight decarbonisation with Phil Churchman: Monday 3 July 2023.

Trucks and vans represent about 8.5% of UK carbon emissions, two thirds of it road freight which is considered a sector that is hard to abate. However, it must be tackled if net zero carbon is to be achieved - despite progress to date being limited - and the research gap is in the political and social rather than the technical aspects. Do feasible options exist to deliver decarbonisation, is there a shared understanding of the design choices that need to be coordinated, and can there be a design framework within which to make these choices?

The study
The food sector was chosen by Phil as being large but concentrated, relatively independent but demanding, with sustainability an important consideration and in an economically, socially and politically prominent position. The 37 interviewees were drawn from freight operators and shippers, government and transport authorities and from experts and academics. They revealed a shared sense of urgency that something must be done, while preferring battery electric to other fuel choices and having little faith in automation. With a smaller proportion of government/transport authorities identifying biofuel and electric road systems, only operators/shippers saw opportunities in vehicle efficiency and load capacity, while government lent towards network-level organisation, and academics showed greater identification of supply-chain opportunities. There was evidence of sharp divisions of opinion on hydrogen, biofuels and on modal shift to rail.

A broad consensus was found on the importance of coordinated design, with a division between whether the market should be allowed to evolve or needed to be driven at European level. The national level was important for collaborative decision-making, but international coordination was most relevant for determining the speed, scale and means of decarbonisation. A study of the literature pointed to interaction between individual actors and decision-taking arenas, designers and policymakers, all within the orbit of the political process.

The five most often-mentioned barriers to progress were uncertain or immature technology, lack of a clear direction or plan, lack of strategic infrastructure, inconsistent incentives and the disadvantage that befalls anyone who makes the first move. Conflict arose within the decarbonisation options from people's entrenched positions, from awaiting new technology as against pressing on with proven solutions and from acceptance or otherwise of an incremental approach. Design options could be conflicted by choice between top-down and market-led approaches, between direct incentives or leaving it to the market, by the feasibility of a level playing-field for smaller operators and whether there should be centralised or devolved policymaking. Should a codesign framework require additional legitimacy, punish incumbents for non-performance, consider political windows of opportunity or connect to a clear political context?

The study has thus confirmed these three preconditions for rapid, radical decarbonisation: existence of techno-economically feasible options; a shared understanding of the design choices that need to be coordinated; and a politically, socially and organisationally feasible codesign framework within which to make these design choices.

System and path dependencies mean that individual design choices cannot be considered independently of each other. A codesign pathway is therefore required that initially prioritises foundational design choices. Decisions should be taken by the appropriate actors at the right geographic and sectoral levels, and the codesign framework should have identifiable attributes and mechanisms for managing conflict.

Next steps will be to review goals, decisions, barriers and enablers and the links between them so as to consider implications for whether decarbonisation infrastructure should be provided in anticipation of or in response to market demand. Phil would welcome any input in taking this forward, and can be reached at

To download a copy of the presentation, click here (PDF format, 2.3Mb)

Report by John Yellowlees.

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