Assessing UK bus decarbonisation plans

Stagecoach launches new sustainability strategy with call for “radical behaviour change” while Go-Ahead targets are backed by Science Based Targets initiative.

Two of the UK’s major bus groups have made significant steps in their decarbonisation journeys with the publication of a new Sustainability Strategy by Stagecoach, and the formal endorsement of Go-Ahead’s targets by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi)*.

Corporate sustainability strategies are plentiful these days as companies aim to present convincing cases to those investors who pore over ESG (Environment, Social and Corporate Governance) statements. And this is no longer a niche activity, since the investment community is rapidly becoming switched on to assessing how future-proofed its target companies are in terms of being prepared for climate change, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Go-Ahead Group’s emissions reduction targets, which form a key part of its climate change strategy, have been approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) as consistent with levels required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

In a climate change strategy published in July, Go-Ahead committed to achieving a 75 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2035, and to become a fully carbon neutral company by 2045.

Go Ahead says this will involve a wholesale shift in technology, including converting the group’s fleet of 5,000 buses to zero emission vehicles and decarbonising rail services. Work is underway across the group to reduce water usage significantly, improve energy efficiency and to recycle more waste.

The SBTi has certified that targets covering greenhouse gas emissions from Go-Ahead’s operations (scopes 1 and 2) are consistent with reductions required to keep warming to 1.5°C, which the latest climate science has told us is needed to prevent the most damaging effects of climate change.

Earlier this year, Go-Ahead signed the Business Ambition for 1.5°C commitment letter, pledging to align its climate mitigation targets with the aims of the Paris Agreement. To date, 695 companies globally have signed this letter.

Heidi Huusko, senior manager, environment and climate at the United Nations Global Compact, one of the Science Based Targets initiative partners, says: “We congratulate Go-Ahead Group on setting science-based targets consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement. By setting ambitious science-based targets grounded in climate science, Go-Ahead is taking action to prevent the most damaging effects of climate change.”

Mark Anderson, Go-Ahead interim customer and commercial director, adds: “This is an important endorsement of our targets by a leading global authority on how best to respond to climate change.

“As a transport operator, we recognise our responsibility to decarbonise our business and we’ve set out an ambitious, but deliverable, timetable to do so. Our actions are only part of the picture though – to truly tackle the climate emergency, it’s vital that travel habits change and that people leave their cars at home in favour of walking, cycling or public transport.”

Since 2016, Go-Ahead says it has achieved a 22 per cent reduction in carbon emissions in spite of international expansion of the company. 

Meanwhile, Stagecoach has launched a new long-term sustainability strategy setting out what it aims to do in response to climate change and other challenges, while also taking a sideswipe at government for its lack of effective action. Stagecoach accuses the government of “contradictory policies and mixed messaging”, while failing to prioritise “radical behaviour change and incentives to reward the right choices”  to make its Net Zero ambitions a reality.

Publishing its own roadmap to becoming a carbon neutral business by 2050, Stagecoach challenged national and regional government over climate change action.

Stagecoach’s strategy – ‘Driving Net Zero: Better Places to Live and Work’ – sets out its plans to harness public transport to address climate change, support post-Covid economic recovery and boost prosperity for employees and communities across the UK.

The plan will see investment in new zero-emissions fleets and other green technologies over the next 15 years to reduce the impact of the company’s operations, as well as initiatives to cut waste, boost recycling and conserve water.

Stagecoach’s carbon reduction target is close to Go-Ahead’s, with a commitment to decarbonise its business by around 70 per cent by 2035 as well as targeting having a zero emissions UK bus fleet by that date. The targets follow a 14 per cent reduction in Stagecoach carbon emissions between 2014 and 2019, supported by investments in LED lighting, intelligent building heating control systems and renewables. Stagecoach has also confirmed plans to sign up to the global Race to Zero campaign and has also started working towards ratification by the Science Based Targets initiative.

The plan to fully decarbonise the company’s operations will see a switch away from diesel power to zero-carbon technologies, including electric and hydrogen.

Other key environmental targets include:

Purchasing only 100 per cent renewable energy for Stagecoach buildings and fleet

Aligning energy management systems with the international standard ISO50001 by 2027

95 per cent of waste diverted from landfill by 2026 and 98 per cent by 2031

Reducing resource use by further digitalising systems

Progressing a climate adaptation programme to risk assess and protect facilities

Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach chief executive, says: “Our strategy starts with what we can do in our own business to help transform society for the better. But we also need to make changes individually and work together to achieve our goals.

“The country will not deliver on its ambitions by grand strategies or technology change alone. We need radical behaviour change and incentives to reward the right choices to make net zero a reality. We need to be more honest about the scale of the challenge and the changes we will need to make to how we live now.

“Governments need to get real and stop cherry-picking the easy wins. We urgently need practical changes by national and regional government to address contradictory policies and mixed messaging currently being sent to citizens.”

Griffiths highlights the problems caused by some clean air zone plans that avoid placing any levy on car drivers which he claims effectively tax bus passengers for making a sustainable choice.

“Our current tax system and approach to road management puts cars first and is directly resulting in higher fares for people doing the right thing and choosing greener bus travel,” adds Griffiths.

“The biggest opportunity to address climate change and protect our communities from extreme weather, poor air quality and the road traffic gridlock strangling our economy is not from electrifying Britain’s transport system. It is from incentivising the country to switch from cars to greener and healthier public transport and active travel.”

Stagecoach is also putting in place enhanced governance arrangements to drive and monitor its strategy. These include a new Sustainability Steering Group; immediate compliance with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures; and a target of achieving Carbon Disclosure Project “A” rating, with annual goals to improve performance.

Griffiths adds: “This is far more than a climate change strategy. It is a plan to deliver better places to live and work in the towns and cities we are proud to serve across the country. We need the support of government, our customers, our employees, our supply chain partners and a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic to fuel the investment needed to make real change a reality.”

• A global body, the SBTi is a collaboration between the CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature. It defines and promotes best practice in science-based target setting and independently assesses companies’ targets.