HomeInfrastructureTransportElectromobility is not a pipe dream, it’s the route to zero emissions

Electromobility is not a pipe dream, it’s the route to zero emissions

electric vehicle smallThis post is by Greg Archer, UK director at Transport and Environment.

The UK’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 is a milestone in the battle against climate change and an important signal to other EU members still debating whether to match the goal. However, setting targets is the easy part. The devil will be in the detail about how to meet them. This is particularly the case with transport, where emissions have been virtually unchanged since 1990 and now account for a third of UK total greenhouse gas emissions.

How is the UK doing?
Our recent ranking of national transport policies’ ability to meet EU 2030 climate goals illustrates the chasm between what is planned and what is needed. Just three countries, including the UK, which ranked second behind the Netherlands, scored more than 50 per cent.

The UK is a better performing pupil in a failing class. It scored well by not falling into the trap of supporting fossil fuel powered vehicles to any great extent and having good transport innovation policies, but it is particularly weak on measures to decarbonise trucks.


The future is electric
Electromobility, in its many forms, has emerged as the principal way to decarbonise transport. For cars, the aim must be to sell the last new model with an internal combustion engine by the early 2030s so that, by 2050, the fleet is fully electric. The current UK target is too late (2040) and too weak (allowing for sales of hybrids) to achieve this. It must be strengthened and made legally binding.

Most car makers have already seen the light and are racing to capture the new electric vehicle (EV) market. With EU CO2 regulations for cars biting next year and steep fines for missing targets that progressively tighten from 2020 to 2030, compliance with regulations will largely be delivered through selling an increasing numbers of EVs.

EU-wide sales of cars that plug-in will jump from 2.5 per cent now to around ten per cent by 2021 to avoid penalties. As EV sales rise, grants will become prohibitively expensive so tax reform, especially for company cars, is essential to impose higher charges on gas guzzlers to fund low tax rates for zero emission vehicles.

Britain’s EV supply could dry up after Brexit
If, after Brexit, EVs sold in the UK do not count towards meeting car makers’ targets, they will simply not be made available in large numbers here. Last December, the government confirmed that it will introduce UK regulations once we leave the EU, but it has yet to table them.

A no deal Brexit will create chaos in the car industry including likely lay offs. In this scenario, it is questionable that the government will prioritise agreeing new CO2 rules to ensure a healthy supply of EVs into the UK, particularly because only the Nissan Leaf is built here. Besides, the tariffs imposed will make all new cars prohibitively expensive and consumer confidence and car sales are likely to be decimated. This is just one example of how a no deal Brexit could undermine the shift to net zero.

Freight transport is challenging but it can be decarbonised
The problem of a lack of supply is even more acute for electric urban delivery trucks and vans. EU regulations are too weak to require manufacturers to increase supplies appreciably until after 2025.

UK regulations that allow heavier electric vans to be driven on a car licence are a positive step forward but the government needs to tempt new entrants into the UK market to increase the availability of models. Reform of truck and van taxes and an end to the fuel duty freeze, to push up dirty diesel prices, would also help to drive the transition to clean electric solutions.

For long haul trucks, electricity is also an efficient option: trucks could be charged on the move using overhead wires (electric road systems), or they could be converted to renewable hydrogen. For short distance shipping, electric ferries are now in service in Norway and could be used on a range of UK services. Meanwhile, renewable hydrogen (or ammonia), used with fuel cells or synthetic ‘power-to-liquid fuels could replace oil in the hard-to-decarbonise areas of the transport sector, like international shipping and aviation. These solutions will also rely on renewable electricity. However, whereas batteries charged from the grid convert three-in-four electrons into useful propulsion, for hydrogen it is one-in five electrons and for power to liquid it is just one-in-eight. Power to liquid would, therefore, be best used for aviation where there are few other viable and sustainable alternatives.

A new study from Transport and Environment shows that smart charging can complement a renewables dominated power grid in the UK and lower the whole system cost. When the batteries are no longer suitable for use in transport they can be repurposed for electricity storage.

Actions to reduce transport emissions today
There are now clear pathways for clean electricity, to move people and freight into a net zero world. However, the slow turnover of the vehicle fleet, and the time needed to build up supplies of renewable, sustainable fuels, requires action to reduce transport emissions today. Encouraging walking, cycling and public transport are simple steps. Sixty per cent of UK rail journeys are already electrified. A further step could be to reverse the UK’s effective ban on electric scooters, which are already propelling people across cities on the continent but not here. Taxing aviation fuels and frequent fliers are other ways the UK can begin to bring down its transport emissions in the short term as zero emission solutions progressively replace oil burning transport.

We are on a pathway to net zero transport. Electromobility is no longer a pipe-dream.


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.