‘Ambitious’ UK plans for electric vehicles welcomed – with reservations

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: David Parry/PA</span>
Photograph: David Parry/PA

Car manufacturers in the UK will be mandated to produce a growing proportion of zero-emission vehicles each year under government plans to cement the transition from fossil fuels to electric cars.

Targets will be introduced from 2024 for zero-emission vehicle sales, before the 2030 deadline when the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned.

Environmental campaigners welcomed the move, while manufacturers gave a guarded response ahead of the detail of the scheme being announced. The exact targets and mechanisms will be set out for consultation in spring next year.

The government said it would also commit an additional £620m to electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure and targeted grants, as part of its net zero strategy published on Tuesday.

Battery EVs

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said the “plans for an ambitious zero-emission vehicle mandate show that we’re leading the world on the switch to EVs”.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said the industry was getting zero-emission cars on Britain’s roads ahead of forecasts. About 33,000 battery electric cars were sold last month, a record 15% of market share in the UK. The SMMT chief executive, Mike Hawes, said: “A well-designed, flexible regulatory framework could help maintain or even increase this pace to ensure we deliver on our shared decarbonisation ambitions.”

Most manufacturers are already producing at least one electric model or adapted classics such as BMW’s Mini Electric, made in Oxford. Ford this week announced a £230m investment in upgrading its Halewood plant to make parts for EVs, while Vauxhall owner Stellantis recently announced it would shift to electric van production at nearby Ellesmere Port. A bigger medium-term question for UK manufacturing will be battery production. Nissan has set out firm plans for a gigafactory in the north-east but the SMMT has said many more are needed to preserve British carmaking jobs.

The policy has the backing of campaign groups including Transport & Environment, which said it would increase EV volumes and bring down prices. Greg Archer, the UK director, added: “More importantly it will give clarity and certainty on how many EVs will be on the roads in coming years – we can plan for how many charge points are needed, how many mechanics to train for electric cars. It’s a good step in the right direction.”

View of the UK&#x002019;s largest high power motorway electric vehicle charging site
While the number of electric charging points has doubled over the past two years, a thinktank estimates that up to 50 new installations a day will be needed over the coming decade. Photograph: Doug Peters/PA

The number of public charge points in the UK has doubled over the past two years, but another 40-50 need to be installed a day over the next decade to meet demand, according to thinktank New AutoMotive.

With transport now the biggest single sector for carbon emissions, dominated by road vehicles, phasing out the internal combustion engine has become a clear, attainable goal for the UK to hit carbon targets.

However, some have voiced concern over the rush to adopt EVs, with questions over carbon and costs as well as the need to upgrade infrastructure – and more broadly, whether the policy will embed car use rather than greener alternatives such as public transport for generations to come.

Chris Boardman, Manchester’s transport commissioner, said embracing electric cars risked missing bigger opportunities: “It’s politically the most palatable option, because you’re not asking anyone to do anything they’re not doing already. But EVs don’t solve the problem of your local neighbourhood street being clogged with cars, of rat-running, obesity, inactivity that is costing the NHS billions, of traffic accidents, wider congestion.

“They are cheaper to drive and so you could lock in car use for generations. It allows people to take the moral high ground and think they’ve done their bit, but it just enables more driving.”

Related: Ford to invest £230m in electric vehicle plant on Merseyside

Shapps himself has long been an EV owner and enthusiast, and drove to the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month from his home near London. The journey would probably have incurred electricity costs of about £8, compared with about £30 in fuel in a petrol car. When asked the price of an off-peak rail ticket for the same journey, Shapps underestimated it by more than 50%.

The minister is not an atypical user, according to Tim Schwanen, director of the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University: “EVs are disproportionately used by middle class households. It’s a point that the government is silent about. Most of the subsidies to date have not benefited the households that in theory would need them the most.

“Residents of low income neighbourhoods in cities face multiple disadvantages – they have less access to off-street private parking where they can install personal charging kit, and are dependent on public street charging that is more expensive.”

“EVs are cleaner … but not necessarily clean,” said Schwanen. On a lifecycle analysis total carbon emissions for EVs beat internal combustion engine vehicles, he said, but the manufacture of batteries, and mining for raw materials such as cobalt, is more carbon intensive. BMW has pledged to tackle supply EV chain emissions, which it said can be double that of petrol cars.

Schwanen said: “Electrification may reduce air pollution and CO2 but not the other problems of car use: whether that is congestion, urban sprawl, or the contribution to obesity with the lack of physical activity.”

Archer concurred: “It’s not enough to just shift to electric vehicles. We are going to have to reduce car use. The strategy acknowledges this – it talks about car-sharing – but they don’t really want to bite the bullet – but they are giving local authorities the responsibility to reduce use, in cities particularly.”

In Manchester, Boardman hopes to drive up car-sharing and increasing the access to car clubs, alongside the Bee Network of integrated public transport and active travel.

Archer said: “We need to turn around our bus systems and get the major causes of transport to take more responsibility: schools, big businesses, hospitals, new housing developments – we need to make sure these have good transport links so people don’t need to drive.”

Increased use of micro-mobility alternatives – such as e-bikes and e-scooters, the latter currently only legal on roads in extended trials of urban rental schemes in the UK – will help, suggested Schwanen. “Electrification will have to be part of the solution … but it won’t be that solution if we simply swap individually owned petrol and diesel vehicles for electric ones. We need modal shift – and a shift towards less mobility overall.”

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