In July 2017, when the government published its long-awaited clean air strategy and its Road to Zero transport policy, its confirmation that it would ban sales of conventional internal combustion engine cars and vans by 2040 met with very little opposition. Just the fact that it had set a firm cut-off date for sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans was enough to satisfy most environmentalists, while vehicle manufacturers and fuel companies agreed that 2040 gave them enough time to adapt.

But after some analysis of how this would affect pollution in the intervening years, it wasn’t long before some influential voices were saying 2040 was too late. In March 2018, a joint inquiry by Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Environmental Audit; Health and Social Care; and Transport committees chided the government for lacking "sufficient ambition" and urged it to conduct a feasibility study to determine the earliest date by which it could be achieved. Three months later the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan called for the date to be brought forward to 2030 "to tackle the nation’s growing air-quality health crisis".

Then in October last year the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee described the government’s targets as vague and unambitious and called for the ban to be brought forward to 2032. The government was able to dismiss this report, but the next significant intervention came from the Committee on Climate Change, which was set up by the government to advise it on emissions targets. In May it said the date should be brought forward, ideally to 2030, or to 2035 at the latest, because the government was in danger of missing its targets on emissions.

Since then the term "climate emergency" has come into common parlance, and the latest influential contribution to the debate has come from the Science and Technology committee. In its far-ranging report on Clean Growth, published last month, it was strongly critical not only of the target date, but of failures by the government to encourage lower emissions by transport. It noted that transport was the largest-emitting sector of the UK economy, responsible for around 27% of the UK’s territorial greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, and was the only major sector of the UK energy system to have increased emissions between 2013-2017.

Regarding a target date it said: "The government has said that a 2040 ban on the sale of conventional cars and vans is consistent with the UK’s current emissions reductions targets for 2050, but this has been disputed by independent organisations such as the UK Energy Research Centre and the Committee on Climate Change. There is a strong case for bringing the date for a future ban forward, given that several manufacturers already have more ambitious commitments in place."

It also warned that sales of new diesel-powered HGVs would need to banned by 2040 to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and called for the government to support trials of new, low-emission HGV technology.

Before any ban in the car sector comes into force, however, the report said there is significant scope for emissions reductions by encouraging the purchase of more efficient vehicle models. It stated: "The government must reconsider the fiscal incentives for consumers to purchase both new and used vehicle models with lower emissions, and develop a strategy by the time of the Spring Statement 2020 to use vehicle excise duty and other incentives to drive the purchase of vehicle models with lower average emissions. This must include consideration of post-sales vehicle excise duty and the second-hand market".

It also called for take-up of electric vehicles to be encouraged by better provision of a charging network, but warned: "Hydrogen technology may prove to be cheaper and less environmentally-damaging than battery-powered electric vehicles. The government should not rely on a single technology".

Perhaps most alarming for fuel providers was a suggestion that instead of just concentrating on vehicle emissions, the government needed to encourage more people to use public transport rather than owning a car. It stated: "In the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation. The government should aim to reduce the number of vehicles required, for example by: promoting and improving public transport; reducing its cost relative to private transport; encouraging vehicle usership in place of ownership; and encouraging and supporting increased levels of walking and cycling. The government should commit to ensuring that the annual increase in fuel duty should never be lower than the average increase in rail or bus fares".

EVs given clean bill of health

Suggestions that electric vehicles (EVs) could be more polluting than their petrol or diesel equivalent have been debunked by a new report, and it says the balance is tipping ever more in EVs favour.
Research by Imperial College London for Drax Electric Insights shows that on average Britain’s EVs are responsible for just one quarter of the CO2 emitted by conventional petrol and diesel cars and if the carbon emitted in making their battery is included, the CO2 emissions are still only half of those of a conventional vehicle.
And the research found that the increasing decarbonisation of Britain’s electricity supply is enabling EVs to become more environmentally friendly. Wind, solar, biomass, and hydro supplied 55% of electricity demand on June 30, breaking last year’s record of 48%, according to the report.
Dr Iain Staffell of Imperial College London said: "An electric vehicle in the UK simply cannot be more polluting than its petrol or diesel equivalent even when taking into account the upfront ’carbon cost’ of manufacturing their batteries. The carbon content of Britain’s electricity has halved in recent years and keeps on falling."