Is the UK on Track to Convert to Electric Vehicles?

The UK government has announced plans to ban the sale of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars in 2035. Will we embrace greener transport or still be lagging behind other countries?

The UK is hosting the UN’s COP26 climate talks in November of this year, in Glasgow. If your memory needs jogging, COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and it’s basically a UN-led meeting where world leaders try to solve the climate crisis. The most famous one was probably COP21 in 2015 which produced the Paris Climate Accord — a set of goals seeking to curb global heating at 1.5 °C. It was a last-ditch attempt to save the world ahead of impending environmental and ecological breakdown; you know, the one Donald Trump decided wasn’t worth his time. Sad!

At a critical moment in Earth’s history, the UK’s record on curbing carbon emissions will now be firmly in the spotlight. This has led to numerous calls for the government to ramp up its green agenda and show climate leadership. So far, Boris Johnson has attempted to signal the UK’s green credentials by announcing plans to ban petrol and diesel cars in 2035 (previously the date was 2040). The move has hit headlines, but is it too little too late, or too much too soon?

“We think the 2035 date is a step in the right direction but is still not adequate,” says Chaitanya Kumar, Head of Climate and Energy Policy at environmental think-tank Green Alliance. Along with other organisations, the think-tank is advocating for a 2030 date, to give the UK a realistic shot at meeting its own legal target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (which it is currently on track to miss).

The government has said that they would consult on the possibility of an earlier date. Kumar explains: “I think that consultation should be open to going much faster than their proposed 2035 date.” But not everyone is so convinced. Industry figures “are furious” according to the Telegraph, while media commentators have branded the move “doomed to failure”.

What we’re hearing essentially is the last gasps of the petrol and diesel industry

“Obviously listen to industry, work with industry, but do not be put off by the fear mongering that is inevitable and will come up with this,” Kumar says. While much of the backlash points to the currently small amount of EVs on the market and a supposed lack of infrastructure, this is a matter of perspective. The market trajectory is moving in the direction of EVs, there are cost-reductions in batteries; huge investments from major companies such as VW; and EV manufacturer Tesla’s stock repeatedly has doubled. 

“I think what we’re hearing essentially is the last gasps of the petrol and diesel industry,” Kumar says. “The suggestion [automotive companies] can’t keep up with these targets I think is not fully founded because they have responded to similar regulations in the past.” He points to the example of EU regulations on carbon dioxide limits for cars, which were initially branded by industry as too much and not possible to meet. But in the end they have been met. “So this is a natural response, an almost instinctive response, to any due regulation,” he says.

Let’s take a look at the numbers. There are 31.5 million registered cars in Great Britain, and the vast majority are petrol or diesel based, around 3.3% are pure electric. 

Passenger cars are responsible for 17 percent of the UK’s CO2 output, and around 16 percent of our NOx emissions. The former gas is one of the main emissions from petrol engines, and it’s making the planet hotter, the latter is emitted by diesel engines and is cutting our lives short.

The country that is really showing everyone else up in the race for EV-adoption is Norway

These are two separate issues that co-exist in the case of private motors. “Climate change and health harmful air pollution are not the same thing,” explains Dr Gary Fuller, air pollution scientist at King’s College London and author of the Invisible Killer. He says manufacturers face a challenge of ensuring even the more air-friendly EVs don’t contribute to air pollution through particle pollution from wearing tyres, road surfaces and even brakes. The battle for clean air means never being complacent.

Still, EVs are a whole lot better than our smoggy status quo. So how much progress has been made in adopting them so far? Data from Northgate Vehicle Hire suggests that at present the UK isn’t leading the way when it comes to adopting EV. We might not be bottom of their EV-friendly list, but we are behind Norway, Germany, China and Costa Rica.

We do not need to wait for new technology to be perfected and scaled-up

The good news is that infrastructure is in place to accommodate more EVs, with nearly two charging points per 10-mile square in the UK. And this number is set to increase in certain cities — London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently announced plans to roll out 175 new rapid-charge points, along with 1,100 lamp post charging points. “Unlike technologies such as climate capture and storage, we do not need to wait for new technology to be perfected and scaled-up,” Dr Fuller says, “battery electric vehicles are already in mass production and in the marketplace.”

An important rejoinder: some jobs could be put at risk by the rapid transition. Since EVs require less servicing, you may worry somewhat if your job is to repair cars. But experts say concerns over job security needn’t halt the transition. According to Kumar, the story could actually be one of industrial investment and job creation. He points to setting up assembly units in the north of England, manufacturing batteries, assembling cars and growing exports as examples of how skills can transfer from the petrol and diesel industry into EVs, creating (or simply swapping) jobs in the process. Pointing to an economic model published by WWF and Vivid Economics, he says there is a case to be made that there would be no net job losses overall even with a 2030 ban.

And it’s not as if it isn’t being done elsewhere. The country that is really showing everyone else up in the race for EV-adoption is Norway — in March 2019, the Norwegian Road Federation reported that electric vehicles accounted for 58 percent of all new sales in that month. In total, around 7 percent of Norway’s cars are now electric and the country has set itself the goal of phasing out petrol and diesel car sales by 2025.

The UK has shown it is able to emulate a lot of Norway’s incentives, if it chooses. Where Norway was offering a reduction in the amount of registration tax paid on EVs, the UK government has offered a grant of up to £3,500 for purchases on certain electricity-powered vehicles. But the continuation of those incentives is in danger. Lack of government support for the transition to EV only fuels industry accusations the government has “moved the goalposts” and is not “engaging with the sector”; it puts car companies off keeping their side of the bargain if the government aren’t sticking to theirs. 

“Incentives for electric cars are ending in less than two months’ time [in the UK] which doesn’t send a good signal,” Kumar confirms. “We have to sustain what are called plug-in grants that are available for new electric vehicles. That needs to be sustained for a period of time.” In other words, a 2035 ban is all very well and good, but the government will need to support the transition with proper incentives for consumers to switch.

Of course, for people who don’t rely on cars to get around due to reasons such as disability or rural location, the best option for solving both air pollution and carbon emissions might be a simple one: get around without an engine at all. Dr. Fuller says: “If we can adapt our cities to make walking and cycling easier we can help four things in one go: less air pollution, less climate change emissions, less urban noise that plagues the lives of so many and we can also help the chronic diseases of inactivity that are impacting on life quality and costing our health service so much.”

In the meantime, the UK will continue to use cars in some capacity. And though EVs are no magic bullet, the future looks cleaner with more of them on the road than petrol and diesel vehicles. So let’s hope it’s a smooth ride.