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Published by

Amy Thompson

14 June 2022, 2:11 UTC Share

How can the UK accelerate the journey to net zero transport? A headlight look at the German transport decarbonisation approach

Transformation of our transport systems to achieve net zero emissions mobility is one of the many significant challenges we face to avoid the impacts of extreme climate change. Yet transport decarbonisation also offers us a powerful opportunity to achieve positive change and improve the quality of mobility for all, and the health and quality of life of many.

The decarbonisation transport agenda, as set out by the UK government, creates a fantastic opportunity to drive other beneficial outcomes – from better connected communities to cleaner air and better cities, to more integrated and resilient energy systems.

Today, transport is a major contributor to carbon emissions, but the sector’s contribution to climate change can be recalibrated – and fast. The solutions we need to accelerate transport decarbonisation are known, available and ready to be deployed in most locations. Policymakers, businesses, academics and transport users can achieve rapid decarbonisation at scale, provided we work together.

From the pricing of different transport options to creating sustainable options for all journeys, it is possible for transport operators and policymakers to deploy a growing range of levers to reshape transport demand, incentivise active and public transport, and deliver additional health and wellbeing benefits.

Across the UK Civil Service, and at universities throughout the UK, policymakers and academics are working to design and deliver on the UK’s decarbonisation transport strategy. But designing strategies and frameworks at such a point in our transportation transition is no easy task. Sometimes looking to see what other countries are doing can provide novel and inspiring ideas, where lessons can be learnt, and new ideas sparked.

Germany recently elected in a new government. In brief, the newly elected coalition is made up of the SPD (Germany’s labour party), the Greens (standing for more environmentally tenable policies), and the FDP, (a smaller, centrist German political party that advocates individualism, capitalism, and social reform). With the formation of this coalition the German transport industry was expecting some shake-ups, but perhaps not that the choice of transport minister would be held by the FDP and not the anticipated Green party.

But these anticipated shake-ups run counter to an ingrained German cultural heritage. Germany prides itself on its car manufacturing design and innovative production. It is also famous for having no universal speed limit on the motorways. Germans love driving and their cars. Perhaps it is in light of this cultural heritage that the three coalition parties did not agree on an end date for the combustion engine – which is a distinctively different approach to the UK Government.

Instead, they have designed a reform of subsidies for electric cars and building alternative transport modes. This importantly includes charging infrastructure to be improved and publicly shared, and autonomous public transport vehicles to be integrated into future transport systems. This sits alongside a commitment to shift personal travel and business/ industry logistics off Germany’s roads and short-haul flights, and onto rail transport.

Public transport is to be invested in, and cycling and pedestrian mobility to be supported. Cycle and pedestrian paths line roads and streets through-out Germany, and right of way falls to these two modes of mobility – over other road users.

The coalition began their position regarding transport with the (translated) statement:

“We want to use the 2020s for a departure in mobility policy and enable sustainable, efficient, barrier-free, intelligent, innovative and affordable mobility for all.”

So how do they intend to deliver this?


  • A target for 2030 of at least 15 million fully electric passenger cars.
  • To continue to support the purchase of electric passenger cars until 31 December 2022.
  • From 1 January 2023, to reform the subsidy so that only vehicles that have a demonstrable positive climate protection effect defined only by an electric driving share and a minimum electric range, will be subsidised.

Charging infrastructure

  • To become the lead market for electric mobility, and the innovation location for autonomous driving.
  • To accelerate the expansion of fast charging infrastructure with the aim for one million publicly accessible charging points by 2030.
  • To ensure transparent electricity prices and publicly visible occupancy status.

Public transport

  • Digital technologies have been invested and rolled out, so people have access to real time buses and trains, as well as the ability to buy tickets online.
  • To ensure frequent public transport provision through communities, and to major transport hubs, at affordable cost.
  • To introduce, from 1 June to end of August, a nine Euro a month travel card for unlimited travel anywhere across Germany on public transport (imagine that being introduced in the UK!)

Building up rail capacity

  • To expand rail transport to 25 per cent by 2030 and double passenger transport use. By 2030 they want to electrify 75 per cent of the rail network.
  • Rail infrastructure will receive more investment funds than roads for the first time.
  • Overnight trains with sleeper carriages are to return to service.


  • To reduce the number of short-haul flights through better rail connections.
  • They are also considering an EU wide air tax.

What is interesting in Germany is that this government is leading with some progressive transport policies that will enable them to reduce their national transport emissions. They are raising the accessibility and reliability of public transport while ensuring the price entry point is realistic and accessible to its people. Alongside this they are leading with shifting national transport sectors, such as rail, away from fossil fuels, and so leading by example.

There is much to learn from the German approach, including that we need to adopt a system-wide, multi-modal approach that leads to net zero-emission transport options for all. But perhaps the biggest shift is that this car loving nation is now focusing on moving people and not cars.

Amy Thompson is Head of Policy Programmes and Communications at the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

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