Let’s focus on the headline announcement: the intention to withdraw all new petrol and diesel cars from sale in the UK from 2030. Yes, numerically that puts us ahead of every country except Norway (which was first out of the blocks on massive investment in electric vehicles) so it sounds good, but on its own it’s meaningless. We’re back into that territory we were in at the election where all parties took part in auctions to see who could say they’d get Britain to net zero carbon emissions earliest – the dates garnered all the media attention, with little heed paid to whether the policies that underpinned them would actually deliver.
So it is with ending new internal combustion engines by 2030. The aspiration is great, though hardly ahead of the game when we consider the urgent need to cut climate emissions. But given that petrols and diesels still make up around 90% of new car sales in the UK, it’s a very tall order to stop all new sales within 10 years, so the key lies in whether there’s a plan – a roadmap if you like – to get us to zero-sales by 2030.
The short answer is that there is, but it’s already hopelessly behind the clock. The EU has a plan to increase e-car sales, and it’s currently being transposed into British law for the post-Brexit era. But the EU’s law is inadequate, and the British transposition is even weaker.
If we’re to get to zero-sales by 2030, e-vehicles have to account for at the very least 40% of new car sales by 2025, and really 50%. In order to meet that target, the share of e-cars has to be around 25% by the end of 2021 (because the low-hanging fruit means we have to be ahead of the curve in the early years of the decade). The EU’s regulation puts the bloc on course for a 15% share, and the UK’s Statutory Instrument for transposing that EU regulation foresees a 12% share by the end of 2021.
Of course Boris Johnson knows that by the time he has to postpone the 2030 end date, people will have forgotten he ever made the promise, and he may well not be in power then. It’s a headline made to impress today, with no regard for the reality of tomorrow.
But instead of just resorting to the old clichés of ‘headline grabbing’, ‘too little too late’ and such like, our response should be to say ‘Great idea, but now let’s get the policies right to make it happen.’ And that’s where the focus has to be on putting binding targets into UK legislation that force car makers to hit minimum sales of zero-emission vehicles at fixed intervals so we really do end up with an end to cars with engines in 2030.
It can be done. For years the car makers held out against mandatory emissions limits. Pressure from the environmental movement forced the EU into setting CO2 standards, which revolutionised research and development in the automotive industry. So what’s lacking now is a sufficiently ambitious regulatory framework – and that’s what the focus of our response to this week’s environmental blueprint should be on.
* Chris Bowers, a former director of the Environmental Transport Association and communications consultant to the European NGO umbrella Transport & Environment, oversaw the development and writing of the transport chapter of the 2019 review of the Liberal Democrats’ climate change policy.