Energy in motion

Weaning the planet from fossil fuels is humanity’s greatest challenge, requiring systems-level change, as well as careful design of policies to ensure effective outcomes. Against a background of rising energy costs, greatly worsened by the geopolitical fallout of the Ukraine crisis, experts at the University of Birmingham are helping policymakers chart a direct course for net zero, while understanding the risks, trade-offs and nuances of individual policies. 

Community engagement for a fair low carbon transition 

After decades of sluggish action, governments are taking bold steps to launch initiatives, targets, policies and laws, from phasing out internal combustion engine vehicles to enforcing low emission zones in cities. However, while rapid action must be taken, decisions should not be made in a purely top-down manner. Net zero policies must accommodate the views, perspectives and needs of all citizens. “We need strategies to ensure vulnerable populations have the relevant technical, financial and institutional resources,” says Dr Neelambari Phalkey, an interdisciplinary researcher in climate vulnerability and resilience to natural hazards. “We need people to be able to adapt to what’s coming their way”. 

The University of Birmingham is pioneering community engagement models that support a more inclusive approach to low-carbon transition. As part of the work at Tyseley Energy Park, an energy, transport and waste nexus for the city — the University is working with Birmingham City Council on a master plan for the Park’s future development, including mapping communities in East Birmingham and how they might be impacted by decarbonisation.  “We’re looking at what housing types exist, the socio-economic standing of different communities and the challenges and opportunities for low carbon heating solutions,” says Professor Martin Freer, Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI) and the Energy Research Accelerator. “Not only are we thinking about energy in the context of Tyseley Energy Park, but, for adjacent communities, we are asking: how can we help influence their journey?” A related policy commission chaired by Sir John Armitt and involving University researchers, aimed to understand how to implement community-level low-carbon heating. “The challenge is to understand how you deploy solutions and remove the blockers,” says Professor Freer. 

As a first step, BEI is spearheading the East Birmingham Community Heat Test and Learn project funded by the Cadent Foundation, a collaboration with Places in Common, the Active Wellbeing Society Council officers, political leaders, industry and citizens, focusing on heat decarbonisation and retrofitting buildings with more environmentally sustainable heating systems. “This approach helps engage communities with research that could directly affect their livelihoods and allows for the recognition of community preferences that may be at odds with a given policy initiative,” says Dr Emily Prestwood, Development Manager for the BEI. 

The Test and Learn project, organised under the East Birmingham Community Heat Task Force chaired by Liam Byrne, an MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, uses an agile ‘test and learn’ approach to policy. A Community Learning Platform offers a shared space for residents, community groups, businesses, industry, and government bodies to explore opportunities, share knowledge and define future approaches and innovations. By bringing together diverse groups, it can effectively identify new measures, enable a common language on retrofit and heat decarbonisation, and facilitate better understanding of residents’ lived experience of heating their homes. The initiative is also supporting the design of retrofitting business models that can be tailored for housing schemes across the UK.  

The project builds on the spirit of the University’s Strength in Common report written with Places in Common, a community mobilisation organisation, which critiqued top-down environmental decision processes that do not actively engage with the affected communities, and thereby miss opportunities to make net zero interventions that serve socio-economic goals. East Birmingham, for instance, has the greatest need for retrofit and new heating solutions, but its residents are the least able to afford new measures, making it a perfect pilot geography for exploring how low-carbon projects can deliver positive socio-economic outcomes, argues Dr Prestwood. 

To be effective, low-carbon policies need to be made relevant to citizens. “One of the big challenges is, how do you have conversations with people about decarbonisation and make that meaningful for them?” asks Dr Prestwood. “And how do you develop policies and projects that deliver decarbonisation, but also have other benefits for people that they will recognise?” Dr Prestwood is also leading education outreach from the BEI and Tyseley Energy Park to “engage people with our research and activities as, particularly in East Birmingham, there's currently low percentages of people compared to the national average who go on to higher education. So, we are encouraging interest and engagement with engineering and energy-related careers”. 

Community engagement is an international effort for the University too. Francis Pope, Professor of Atmospheric Science, has worked with grassroots organisations and capital city authorities in Kenya and Uganda to strengthen community-government engagement in policy decisions around air pollution. “What I’m most proud about is helping ensure that those in charge of top-down governance, and grassroots organisations, are in the same room, like slum organisations talking to capital city authorities,” says Professor Pope. “You get change when top-down government combines with bottom-up organisations.” 

Policy takeaway

  • While governments need to take bold steps, decision-making should be inclusive. This can be achieved through active outreach to all stakeholders to gather diverse views and opinions, identifying common blockers and obstacles and developing a common language, and by making low carbon transitions meaningful and beneficial to citizens.
  • Low carbon policies can deliver socio-economic co-benefits; projects and initiatives in low carbon living should be aimed at disadvantaged geographies to align climate transition with the equity and ‘levelling up’ agenda. 

How sustainable is clean tech?

The boom in low-carbon goods and technologies like electric vehicles is, paradoxically, increasing demand for finite metals and minerals, which could cause environmental damage if extracted through unsustainable mining and poses social risks - such as child labour in the supply chain. The geographic distribution of raw materials is a policy concern too; limited domestic access could be a barrier to industries developing low carbon technologies.  

Professor Robert Lee, at Birmingham Law School, is helping shape UK policy to anticipate raw material shortages and emphasise and support circularity, sustainability and good governance principles in low-carbon supply chains. Working with the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Batteries Consultation Group, Professor Lee is leading the governance stream of Met4Tech, a UKRI-funded interdisciplinary research centre promoting a sustainable and circular low carbon economy. 

Professor Lee focuses on critical materials energy transition, particularly energy generation and transport: elements such as dysprosium (for wind turbines), gallium (for solar panels), cobalt, graphite (for electric vehicle batteries), and platinum group metals (for hydrogen fuel cells). “We're not going to get to net-zero or transition from fossil fuels to renewables without adequate metal supply, and very few of these metals are mined in the UK. The country has never had an overt critical materials policy,” he says.  

The deficit has widened since leaving the European Union, as the EU has its own critical materials list which the UK has now abandoned. “It is vital to obtain an adequate supply of these critical materials,”  argues Professor Lee.  This challenge needs to be situated in the broader context of UK energy reliance and lack of sovereignty resulting from the decline of its fossil fuel reserves, notably in the North Sea; issues which have become more germane during the current geopolitical crisis in Ukraine. 

The issues go further than the UK. With reference to metals and minerals availability and supply, Professor Emma Kendrick, Chair of Energy Materials, says the whole of Europe needs to pay attention to commodity supply chains as it rushes to set up ‘giga-factories’ to produce batteries and electric vehicles. The sustainability-focused EU ‘battery directive’ will force companies to improve handling and recycling, such as requiring a ‘battery passport’, a digital system that stores relevant battery contents data throughout the lifecycle. Professor Kendrick says: “This is really important. Companies are going to have to start looking at the environmental impact of batteries more.” 

Professor Lee suggests that governments may need to mandate industry to take back more materials for reuse in future batteries, through extended producer responsibility schemes. “The government should regulate and make a plan for lithium-ion batteries and decide whether to recycle them and get access to the much-needed metals or let them go to a repurposed use like energy storage, which may place more dependence on primary sources of metals.” 

The issue is not just regulatory; our experts are helping the battery industry achieve a circular economy, and innovation is critical to this. The Faraday Institution project Recycling of Lithium-Ion Batteries (ReLiB) is focusing on technical breakthroughs to optimise life cycle handling of lithium-ion batteries to reduce environmental harm from disposal and boost raw material supply by recovering valuable materials from the waste stream. 

An allied research agenda is redesigning batteries themselves. Professor Kendrick, working closely with the private sector, is focusing on new ways to design sustainable batteries and optimise life cycle efficiency. Professor Kendrick is Director of About: Energy, a new joint spin-out from the University of Birmingham and Imperial College in London, which is working on a significant industry problem: lack of high-quality inputs for modelling battery performance. Battery models are widely used in the design of cells and battery packs to improve performance and reduce costs, but they require input parameters that describe the electrochemical, physical and thermal properties of a battery. However, accurate models depend on the quality of the lab measurements of these parameters, an activity that requires complex technical skills and access to high-end instrumentation. About:Energy is working with industry by analysing and testing sample batteries and sending high quality data inputs for subsequent modelling. Professor Kendrick is also a co-author of an Innovate UK report called ACCELERATE with ANSYS-Granta, Intellegens, Deregallera and AMTE power, investigating tools to accelerate the development of sodium-ion batteries, a complementary less critical-resource dependent and more sustainable solution to lithium-ion formats. 

While product innovation and circularity will support the development of sustainable supply chains, the UK’s low carbon industries will doubtless venture abroad for essential commodities, and Professor Lee advocates for a stronger adherence to good governance in geographies like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a major source of cobalt, where there are an estimated 40,000 children working as artisanal workers, scouring through waste heaps of mine tailings trying to pick out cobalt. 

Dr Nana Bonsu, Research Fellow, draws attention to the winners and losers of the net zero supply chain, in particular those resulting from inequalities between the countries producing raw materials and those manufacturing end products, mostly in China and the West. Dr Bonsu says: “We know this transition is introducing a lot of socioeconomic and ecological issues within resource-rich countries in terms of water security, deforestation, emissions, air and water pollution due to resource extraction.” Dr Bonsu’s insight speaks to a gap between climate policy and socio-economic inequality at the international level. Such challenges are true at both ends of the supply chain, as with the quantities of plastic waste being shipped to developing countries, often for landfill and incineration due to poor governance and traceability. Policy analysis by Dr Natasha Cornea, Lecturer in Human Geography, has provided guidance for the UK government that includes phasing out virgin plastics and creating a more ‘open’ and decentralised plastics recycling ecosystem. 

While the UK’s reliance on imported net zero commodities will increase, the country is also accessing more of its own geological resources. Cornwall, for example, is now a hotspot for clean energy resources, notably lithium. It is crucial that an ensuing clean-tech mining boom learns the lessons of history in terms of governance and environmental responsibility. Aleksandra Čavoški and Robert Lee, both Professors of Environmental Law, are working with the main stakeholders in Cornwall’s mining industry to promote circular economy and good governance in the burgeoning sector. “We are interested in better understanding legal and regulatory challenges in mineral exploration and development,” Professor Čavoški says. The work is not geared to monitor or chastise, but rather, is about fact-finding and identifying areas in which academic research could be of help.  “It’s a very collaborative approach,” adds Professor Čavoški. “We try to find out what the problems are and how we can help solve them.” 

Cornwall’s lithium boom is also catalysing private sector collaborations, through a partnership between a University of Birmingham spinout, Salinity Solutions, and the mineral exploration and mining industry. Based on a decade of research, Salinity Solution’s compact, energy-efficient desalination system can concentrate the salts in groundwater to extract a mineral-rich brine. The company is currently field-testing its system with eco-technology company Cornish Lithium, which has secured agreements with the owners of mineral rights over a large area of the county.  

Policy takeaway

  • The net zero era will increase pressure on ecological systems for the commodities required for low carbon goods. Governments must anticipate raw materials shortages that could constrain their green industries, and work with the private sector to strengthen circularity and reuse through appropriate regulations and incentives. 
  • Low carbon goods could create new social and environmental governance risks in developing countries that are rich in key commodities like cobalt and lithium. Mining companies, academic researchers and governments must ensure the net zero mining boom starts on a sound ESG footing.
  • To keep the 1.5-degrees target alive requires new, innovative and more inclusive governance and policy development mechanisms to help reimagine and realise a different future that averts the worst effects of climate change. One such mechanism could be developing local-level participatory scenarios, which will help stimulate experts and creative debate and knowledge exchange among local stakeholders and decision-makers around climate change.

Decarbonisation, zero emission vehicles and air quality: not so fast

Net zero ambitions are laid out in quantitative targets, which often carry with them assumptions about the optimal technologies to get us there. Electric vehicles (EVs), for instance, are proposed to be the star actor in the shift to zero emission transport. The COP-26 Glasgow Declaration, of which the UK was a signatory, included a call to rapidly accelerate the shift to ‘zero’ emission vehicles. This could be wrong-headed if it is conflated with EVs, according to Dr Suzanne Bartington, Clinical Research Fellow in Environmental Health. Her research speaks to the importance of critically engaging with new technologies and questioning purported benefits, relative to other investments. 

Dr Bartington’s research interrogates the relationship between air quality, decarbonisation and transport. As principal investigator of the Transition Clean Air Network, a consortium of nine universities, the UK Health Security Agency, commercial organisations such as HS2, public bodies (Network Rail), local authorities , and third sector organisations, Dr Bartington is leading research to better understand how different sustainability goals intersect. One risk in current policy discourse, she argues, is a flawed framing of EVs as ‘zero emission’, which ignores the pollution created in their production, as well as the non-exhaust emissions of the vehicles themselves, such as from brake, tyre and road wear, which contribute to haze and linked respiratory health problems. 

A rapid increase in EVs may undermine emissions targets for particles, given the positive relationship between vehicle weight and non-exhaust emissions and the fact the EVs are typically heavier than conventional vehicles. There is also a concern that focusing on electrification could overlook the potential for broader policies designed to influence mobility choices at scale, such as the location of homes, workplaces and amenities, the quality of public transport, and opportunities for active travel — which can also bring benefits like greater physical activity, lower congestion and fewer road accidents — and the planning decisions that guide these. “The market-driven EV focussed approach doesn’t work in terms of trying to solve a systems-level problem with an individual choice solution. We are trying to influence the direction of the transport decarbonisation debate,” says Dr Bartington. “We are making the case that decarbonisation policies must be holistic to deliver cleaner air, mobility equity and better health.” 

Dr Bartington was part of a Birmingham team that recently concluded a ‘participating systems mapping’ project, in which diverse stakeholders construct a model of the UK surface transport system via online workshops. The research revealed how unintended consequences of EV-focused transport policies might impact air quality, human health and social functions of the transport system. This project seeks views and opinions from diverse voices, captures social, behavioural and on-the-ground realities of the transport system which are missing from empirical models, or not incorporated into policy thinking, due to lack of relevant data and narrow approaches to evidence-gathering. 

Academic research can challenge other popular but misguided environmental narratives, such as the current ‘war on plastic’. While plastic pollution is a subject of grave concern, plastics can deliver important environmental gains, such as lowering food waste. Andrew Dove, Professor of Sustainable Polymer Chemistry, is leading work on how to redesign plastics through stereochemistry, which can change the properties of materials to preserve their manifold benefits and lower environmental harms and risks. Debates around banning of single-use plastics also tend to miss the bigger picture of the whole production chain and life cycle of the suggested alternatives, which for food packaging include bamboo, leading to large-scale diesel emissions during shipping for example.

Policy takeaway

  • Relying on electric vehicles to reach low emissions transport targets under-estimates their true air pollution profile and could underplay more impactful changes relating to public transport, active mobility and the location of homes and amenities.
  • Collaborative research methods can ensure policy decisions are taken based on all relevant social, behavioural, and on-the-ground realities of the issue. 

Net zero accounting - building climate literacy in government and business 

All organisations are under pressure to report on their emissions, but the tools and accounting principles involved are only emerging. Companies can ‘greenwash’, presenting a misleading picture of their environment performance by selecting favourable reporting methodologies, or simply shifting emissions into their supply chain by buying, rather than producing, a given good or service. 

To produce comprehensive emissions performance data requires including so-called Scope 3 emissions – meaning those produced in the supply chain, rather than from organisation’s own operations. These are, in many cases, where the majority of an organisation’s emissions actually lie. Professor Ian Thomson has led work to quantify the presence of ‘Scope 3’ emissions and raise awareness about the need for more rigorous reporting data. Governments need such data to guide decisions like public procurement, tax rates, fiscal incentives and regulatory requirements for carbon disclosures on stock exchanges. Companies need visibility into Scope 3 performance to know how they are tracking against their climate targets. Noting the recent IPCC report, Professor Thomson identifies a shift in science and policy to promote full life cycle accounting practices. 

“Unless you get the life cycle approach right, you make the wrong decisions,” says Professor Thomson. A company might, for example, think a shift to digital technology is ‘cleaner’ which might not be true when factoring in the production of new equipment like servers. “You have to get the numbers as comprehensive as possible to unlock proper decisions. Get them wrong, and well-intentioned policymakers will come up with the wrong answers”. 

Professor Thomson led the research involved in ‘Net Zero Accounting’, a project funded by Research England’s Strategic Priorities Fund, which explored how inappropriate greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting choices result in decision makers selecting options they mistakenly believe will reduce GHG when they will increase global GHG.s The research showed how many decision outcomes linked to the UK government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution are highly sensitive to choices made in the application of different accounting methods. 

Professor Thomson sees his own and Birmingham’s role as firstly, awareness-raising to ensure the problem gets the attention it needs. “Right now, if you look at accountants in industry, a tiny minority have knowledge about this. This also applies to lawyers, engineers, the marketing people and so on. There’s a big knowledge gap in this carbon literacy space,” he says. Putting numbers on Scope 3 exposure and showing how GHG accounting decisions can radically alter the outcomes of different net zero decisions, is a research-intensive exercise.  

A further contribution of the University is helping to produce a new generation of business experts who are climate-literate and understand the realities and complexities of emissions accounting. Birmingham is the first academic institution in the world to introduce climate change into its undergraduate accountancy course. “We have threaded this through the whole syllabus and are working on sharing that with other universities through online resources,” says Professor Thomson. “Our goal is to make every single accounting and finance degree in the world have material on this.” 

Professor Thomson is also working with the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education program to develop accounting, economics and finance carbon literacy projects. He is also collaborating with the West Midland Business in the Community regional board to make climate targets a major goal in the region, working with a group of leading companies through roundtables, knowledge toolkits and partnering. 

Policy takeaway 

  • Governments can promote low carbon transition by using procurement budgets to favour higher performing vendors, and through regulation and incentives, push the private sector to raise performance. But doing so requires rigorous greenhouse gas data that factors in the total emissions life cycle which is often not the case due to inadequate accounting techniques.
  • Companies need to improve their carbon literacy to accurately track progress and make net zero decisions based on the total evidence. Research at the University of Birmingham is helping quantify true GHG emissions, to produce comprehensive data for effective decisions. 

The University of Birmingham is providing support and advice for SMEs in the West Midlands through European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)-funded programmes. This includes reducing emissions, examining energy consumption, ethical raw material supply, and reducing and utilising waste streams. These collaborations both further Birmingham’s research in real-world contexts and help the business community. 

Thinking thermally 

Climate change will create new emission sources, such as a boom in demand for cooling technologies due to rising temperatures. “Business-as-usual projections suggest that the number of cooling devices could increase to 9.5 billion globally by 2050 from today’s 3.6 billion. Providing cooling for all will require 14 billion devices by 2050 - which is 3.8 times as many devices as are in use now,” says Toby Peters, Professor in Cold Economy and co-Director of the Centre for Sustainable Cooling. "The challenge we face is how to provide access to cooling and cold-chains for all who need it, not just those who can afford it, in an efficient, affordable, resilient and sustainable manner.” 

It is a challenge not appreciated by many governments yet. “Most of our energy consumption globally is around thermal demands — heating in the North, and cooling in the global South — but we don’t think about energy demand in a thermal way,” Professor Peters argues. Cooling is often a mere “addendum in the renewable energy debate”.  

For example, over 100 gigawatts (GW) of space cooling capacity was added in 2017, outpacing the record 94 GW of solar power generation added to the world’s renewable energy infrastructure that year. Similarly, 2018 was a record year for global deployment of solar power with 104GW of installed capacity added, but energy demand resulting from the sale of new air conditioners (ACs) hit 115 GWs. “My first job is to show governments that when you look at the transition to renewables, you need to be thinking thermally, not just about electricity.” 

Professor Peters is working with governments and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to create cooling centres of excellence across Africa and India, focusing on training and capacity-building through polytechnics and apprenticeships. “There is no point having a commitment to move to energy-efficient refrigerators and alternative lower global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants unless you have the business models to underpin them and the skills to install and maintain them,” says Professor Peters. “You have to build capacity ahead of the curve, not behind it.” The Africa Centre of Excellence is hosted by the University of Rwanda in partnership with Defra, the government of Rwanda, UNEP, and four UK universities. It will scale up its work program across the continent and into India thanks to significant investment from Defra. The goal is for the centres to set up ‘spokes’ in other countries to allow knowledge to flow out into the community. 

While Professor Peters works with industry, multilateral institutions, and philanthropic players, it is governments that drive the agenda, he says, by setting regulations and minimum energy efficiency standards for cooling equipment, implementing financial instruments like subsidies and taxes, and building the skills base to support development, deployment and maintenance of sustainable technologies and systems. “It is very much a government engagement — you have got to have the government involved if you’re going to deliver solutions.” 

Policy takeaway 

  • Governments are under-estimating the importance of thermal energy demand as an emissions source. Cooling presents a particular challenge for developing countries vulnerable to heat waves and droughts. The challenge requires advances in energy-efficient cooling technology along with relevant business models.
  • Investment is needed in building the skills base to support development, deployment and maintenance of sustainable technologies and systems. 

Realising the promise of rail 

Rail is an inherently low-emission mode of transport, accounting for 10% of travelled miles in the UK but only 2.5% of transport emissions, making it a valuable part of a net zero transport mix. “Rail has a significant advantage over other modes of transportation,” says Clive Roberts, Professor of Railway Systems and Director of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education. 

But it is also a costly and technically complex sector in which governments make expensive, multi-decade, procurement decisions. Academic expertise is key in supporting the sector to address two key challenges: optimising the current rail system — such as reducing emissions and increasing accessibility — and making optimal choices when commissioning new rail infrastructure. Smart procurement choices are especially germane in emerging economies where such investments are significant due to the pressure economic growth places on transport infrastructure. 

Professor Roberts is leading a broad research and policy engagement effort to improve the number of people who use rail; cut emissions of the rail system through alternative fuels in the form of hydrogen and greater driver efficiency through training; and support governments in emerging economies to make sound long-term decisions on new rail infrastructure. 

“Start with the accessibility gap, which is surprisingly wide,” says Professor Roberts. “When you take a journey, you don't necessarily care which mode you take, but in having a connected unit. One of the benefits of a car is it's one unit, you sit in it and arrive.” Professor Roberts and his team, partnering with the University of Cambridge, are exploring how to ensure rail is an inclusive and convenient mode of transport to encourage more people to use it. “We find about a third of the travelling public in the UK have physical issues that stop them travelling by rail, including eyesight, their ability to step onto the train from the platform, the ability to use the ticket machines because they've got arthritis. If a third of the public can’t use rail, that’s problematic.” 

Professor Roberts has set up a Centre of Excellence[2] focusing on Inclusive Passenger Experience (IPEC) which provides a physical space for the development and testing of innovations across the four thematic areas of inclusive design, passenger digital connectivity, passenger experience performance metrics and future passenger preferences and demand. IPEC is working on research to illuminate accessibility performance in areas including interfaces whilst planning and booking; interfaces and information during travel; journeys to and from stations; parking and wayfinding; and experience in stations. 

Birmingham is also working to improve the emissions performance of the existing rail system and integrate the latest technology. At COP-26, a team from the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education demonstrated the hydrogen fuel technology that powers HydroFLEX, the UK’s first mainline-approved hydrogen powered train. The technology, developed in partnership with Porterbrook and funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s national innovation agency, converts air into electricity and water, with batteries providing traction power to the train. By utilising green hydrogen (produced with renewable electricity), the fuel cells are emission-free and generate clean electricity to propel the train. Birmingham research is helping bring down emissions from conventional vehicles too, through measures like driver training; capacity-building work with Edinburgh trams, for instance, saved 16% of traction energy. 

In emerging economies, rail infrastructure is being built at a rapid pace, given rail’s higher efficiency and the need to reduce road congestion which is bedevilling many large cities. Professor Roberts is working with governments across the world to support sound, long-term decisions that improve economic growth, cut emissions and support local industry and supply chains. He is a member of the Technical Advisory Panel to the Board of SMRT (Singapore), and a Technical Advisor to Guangzhou Metro in China, a nation with 10,000km of high-speed line, and 25 cities building or extending their metro lines. 

The University of Birmingham has a joint research institute with Anhui province in East China to support the development of railway infrastructure. A physical presence in the nation brings huge implications for the real-world impact of Birmingham’s rail research and Professor Roberts aims to develop a local research capability as a base for railway support in China and throughout Southeast Asia. 

Professor Roberts is also delivering international education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with some work backed by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), in recognition of the developmental benefits of rail for economic growth, emissions reduction and industrial policy. This support comes at a timely moment for rail development globally. “Rail is a growth area in a lot of places around the world, whether that's in a city, metros, high speed lines or freight lines, says Professor Roberts.”  While this investment is positive, decision-makers need to make the right choices given the sums involved — often including significant debts. “These are big sums of money you are spending so you want to be an educated customer and make sure you’re asking the right sort of questions as you will be stuck with those decisions for a long time.”  

Policy takeaway 

  • Rail is an efficient and low carbon transportation mode. Governments should explore ways to promote the accessibility, appeal, user experience and inclusivity of rail.
  • In emerging economies that are building significant new rail infrastructure, governments should seek independent academic expertise to make maximal use of rail in a financially sustainable manner.