Why the Road to Zero strategy won’t do the job

north york moorsThe government published its Road to Zero strategy this week, as a pathway to decarbonise the road transport sector, the source of a quarter of the UK’s annual carbon emissions. The strategy also aims to show how this transition will make Britain a global leader in low carbon vehicles and their associated infrastructure.

How does it measure up?
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) estimates that, under the cost effective pathway to meeting the carbon budgets it has set, the transport sector should see emissions reductions of 46 per cent from 2017 to 2030.

Will the government’s new strategy meet this target? Below is our outline assessment of the government’s strategy compared to the CCC’s proposals:

Key policy

This comparison shows that across several key policy areas there is less ambition than the CCC wants. Instead of clear mandates providing strong investment signals, Road to Zero adopts a voluntary and ‘wherever appropriate’ approach to meeting its suggested targets.

Where the strategy’s ambition is strong is in relation to EV charging infrastructure. It focuses heavily on removing existing barriers to uptake and supporting installation through fiscal and non-fiscal measures. It includes efforts to ensure new houses and non-residential buildings are EV ready, that new street lighting columns include charging points, that charging points are smart and access to them is rationalised, and that there is time bound fiscal support for their installation.

Three areas where the strategy is weak

1. Supply side push
While focus on charging infrastructure is vital, the strategy is weak on supply side levers. Green Alliance, along with several other civil society groups and companies, including Shell and National Grid, have called for the 2040 ban to be brought forward to 2030. We have recommended that the government adopt a Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) mandate that sets interim sales targets for automakers in the UK. Road to Zero fails to offer any interim targets and does not set out a pathway (barring a vague illustrative graph) on how it will hit the upper end of its sales target of 70 per cent.

2. Incentives
The strategy reiterates the government’s previous commitment to maintain current plug-in grants for cars and vans to at least October 2018, gradually reduced to 2020, beyond which there is no indication of fiscal incentives for consumers. We have argued that incentives should be aligned with achieving cost parity between conventional and electric vehicles and that cutting incentives early could lead to disastrous consequences.

3. Ambition in manufacturing
The strategy does not mince its words in expressing ambition to make the UK a global leader in research, design and manufacturing of zero emission vehicles. But, in light of the weak targets it sets, it is unclear how the UK can compete with fast growing markets in China (which produced one in every two EVs sold globally in 2017), the United States and Germany (which overtook Britain in EV sales for the first time last year). Investments in research are valuable but the government will need to provide much more direction for the market, potentially at the Zero Emission Vehicle Summit in September, on how it intends to make Britain the natural home for EV manufacturers.

A hard exit from the EU would drastically slow down Britain’s EV ambitions. The strategy aims to increase the UK content by value of domestically-built low emission vehicles to as much as 50 per cent by 2022. This will require current European supply chains to operate as they are. It has been suggested that a hard Brexit could instead reduce UK content to 25 per cent. There are several crucial consultations (eg on Vehicle Excise Duty rates and charge point infrastructure) identified in the strategy which also risk getting kicked down the road in the face of other priorities. There will need to be strong cross departmental backing for the strategy as ambition on critical matters, like reducing company car tax for electric vehicles or amending regulations to make buildings EV ready, need to be secured as early as possible.

Local ambition needs support
The real focus of EV development and ambition are cities and local areas. Spearheaded by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, cities are pursuing bolder EV targets while bringing the added benefits of cleaner air and jobs to their constituents. For this action to accelerate, the government should ensure that local regions get the help they need.

As it stands, Road to Zero fails to cement UK’s leadership in zero emission vehicles, something that the prime minister has specifically said she wants to do. The targets in it are too weak and the policy detail is inadequate. But, as technology costs continue to fall and Brexit negotiations start to offer some regulatory stability, let’s hope the government takes the opportunity to revise it and set the right course to zero transport emissions.

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