The government should ignore the backbench sceptics and get on with its transport decarbonisation plan

This post is by Greg Archer, UK director of Transport & Environment.

The UK government’s recently announced transport decarbonisation plan is unquestionably a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. First, the good. Proposals to accelerate the shift to electric vehicles (EVs) are world leading and an excellent basis from which to achieve only zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2035. The bad was the failure to address aviation and shipping emissions, with unfounded optimism that international agreements and technology will deliver the required transformation. And the ugly was the departure, in public statements made by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, from the clear messages in the plan that less vehicle use would be necessary and good for society. Instead, he danced to the populist tune that the car shall remain king, albeit electric. Critics may question if he really believed what he was proposing.

There’s backbench rebellion on the shift to clean vehicles
The lack of enthusiasm with which the transport secretary backed his own proposals to reduce car use can be explained by the noisy rabble of Conservative backbenchers that have begun complaining about the cost and disruption of meeting climate goals. They seem to be ignoring the costs of not doing so, despite the floods and wildfires that have engulfed Europe this summer.

The cost of the shift to EVs is firmly in their cross wires despite strong evidence that they will be as cheap to buy and much cheaper to run than conventional cars by the mid-2020s. The propaganda issued by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Fair Fuel UK Drivers and Hauliers against the shift to electric cars has received extensive coverage in some press. Vested interests will continue to try to slow the shift to clean vehicles with misinformation. The battle is heating up.

At least, so far, the government seems unwilling to listen to them and is pushing ahead with its world leading plans to shift to zero emission vehicles. Only Singapore has, so far, made an equivalent commitment to fully decarbonise vehicles. Building on the phase-out of conventional cars and vans, the plan announced that no new fossil-fuelled vehicles can be sold after 2040, including larger trucks, paving the way for a UK fleet consisting of only of zero emission vehicles by 2050. Sales of smaller diesel trucks will be banned from 2035, along with powered light vehicles such as motorcycles and scooters.

An ambitious ZEV mandate is needed
Alongside the overall plan, the government has also announced its delivery plan for the 2035 shift to zero emission cars and vans, and a green paper on a regulatory framework for vehicle CO2 emissions.  The plan to achieve the phase out is a welcome step and follows the advice of environmental groups in proposing to diverge from EU car and van CO2 regulations and regulate car manufacturers through a ZEV mandate. This will require automakers to sell an increasing share of new ZEVs until 2035. What is still missing from the hundreds of pages of documents are interim targets for sales that automakers will need to meet. Around one in ten new cars sold this year are expected to be battery electric, so the ZEV mandate (proposed to start in 2024) should stipulate that one in five vehicles produced should be zero emission from the start, growing this to two thirds of all new cars and vans sold, moving in steps to 2030.

Getting the design of the regulation right is essential to shift the market to battery electric cars which have genuinely zero tailpipe emissions. Carmakers have set a trap by marketing hybrid models as “self-charging” and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) as “zero emission capable.” In reality, a typical hybrid and PHEV car emits seven to eight times more CO2 over their lifetime in the UK compared to a battery electric car (including emissions from producing the fuel or electricity). At Transport & Environment, we estimate that excluding hybrids and plug-in hybrids from the ZEV mandate will reduce overall new car CO2 emissions by about seven per cent to 2035, compared to regulations that reward and encourage the sale of PHEVs.

In total, the delivery plan makes 43 commitments, including continuing the plug-in car grant until 2022-23, and favourable company car tax rates until the start of the 2025-26 tax year. Most of these commitments are not new, like the £1.3 billion for charging infrastructure, but they do indicate that, despite a huge budget deficit, the government is supporting the transition to EVs.

Public investment must pick up the slack from the private sector
The forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) this autumn will require new spending needs to be addressed on this agenda, undoubtedly to the ire of the climate sceptic backbenchers. If local authorities are to co-ordinate the rollout of local charge points, and develop and implement plans to reduce car use, they will need extra staff resources to do so. While the falling price of batteries should mean tax incentives can replace the plug-in car grant, support will be needed for businesses purchasing the first electric trucks and to grow the electric van market. And, while businesses will meet most of the cost of charging points, there will be unprofitable sites where subsidised chargers will be necessary to create a comprehensive network. Business will bankroll much of the transition, but some public funding will be needed.

The transport decarbonisation plan shows the government is genuinely committed to a rapid shift to zero emission vehicles and has been listening to environmental groups and other advocates. Now the Department for Transport must quickly and effectively convert the consultations and proposals into regulations and supportive policy. It will do so in the knowledge that, although the sceptics are on its back, it is on the right track.

This post is one of a short series on transport issues we are featuring over the coming weeks, following the publication of the government’s transport decarbonisation plan in July 2021.

One comment

  • There’s also a noisy rabble of local Tories campaigning (in London in particular) against their own government’s policies on LTNs (low traffic networks). Instead of encouraging citizens to find ways to reduce car use and encouraging councils to create safe cycle lane networks, these campaigners create fictitious arguments about increased pollution which would be laughable if they were not so potentially serious. The whole object of these protestors is to enable continued use of cars in residential areas without let or hindrance. The creation of more traffic free areas and of networks of interconnected, segregated cycle lanes in towns and cities is at least as important a component of plans to decarbonise transport as the speedy introduction of electric vehicles (which, while reducing ghg emissions, do still make a significant contribution to local environmental pollution via tyre wear etc).

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