The Guardian view on electric cars: greener roads are good

Editorial
·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA</span>
Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

The prospect of a cleaner motor vehicle fleet is drawing closer. In November, the UK government announced that a ban on new petrol and diesel car sales would be brought forward to 2030. Advances in battery technology mean the tipping point at which electric vehicles become cheaper than other types, without subsidies, could come within five years. Fast-charging electric car batteries are on the horizon, with five-minute “fill up” times in sight.

This is good news for the climate, with transport emissions one of the biggest obstacles to meeting reductions targets, nationally and globally. Also welcome for the UK is the announcement by Nissan that in future it will source 62 kilowatt-hour batteries for its popular Leaf model from the factory next door to its Sunderland car plant, instead of importing them from the US.

On vehicle emissions, there is some way to go. While last year saw a 43% rise in electric car sales, they made up just 4.2% of the total. So far, Norway is the only country where they are the most popular cars. SUVs have been the second largest cause of rising global emissions over the previous decade – and worryingly their sales continue to rise in Britain. Much work remains to be done to stop people choosing vehicles that are making the world’s biggest problem worse. The joy in Sunderland ought to be tempered by the fact that Nissan will continue making its SUV Qashqai there. The benefits for the workforce should blind no one to the environmental risks.

Plans to limit emissions from heavy goods vehicles are also needed. Last month the Committee on Climate Change recommended a ban on diesel HGVs by 2040, which it said was necessary if the UK is to meet the target of net zero by 2050. With the freight industry facing severe disruption because of Brexit, new environmental goals are likely to meet resistance.

But with electric vehicles responsible for around 30% less carbon dioxide than fossil-fuel-powered cars in the UK (in France, where the electricity supply is cleaner, the figure is nearer 70%), the path to a greener transport future is becoming clearer. As with solar and wind energy, prices are falling faster than expected, and battery technology is an important part of the green investment strategy that should follow the pandemic. The phasing out of cobalt in newer batteries is also encouraging, given the ethical and labour issues connected with mining the mineral in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Electric cars do not obviate the need for other affordable transport options, or for big reductions in overall road traffic, especially in cities. Battery disposal is a problem, as is the use of coal power in some manufacturing. But since cars are part of life, it is good that they are getting greener.