By REMI TROVO
As the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Accord and the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow approach, the Prime Minister announced that the sale of petrol and diesel cars in the UK would cease by 2030, ten years earlier than previously announced. This policy was introduced as part of his ten-point climate plan. Although much work remains to be done, the rolling out of electric cars could mark a turning point in the race against climate change.
As is the case with many policy initiatives put forward by governments, Boris Johnson’s plan is not without its shortcomings. In a concession to carmakers, the production of hybrid cars (which can run on batteries for long distances before switching to a conventional engine) will not be phased out until 2035. These cars are believed to emit two and a half times more carbon dioxide in real life than during lab tests. Emissions from cars will therefore not be eradicated by 2030. Another, more serious, problem, with this plan is that it doesn’t seem ambitious enough to tackle the scale of the challenge posed by climate change. This is the view of Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband, who pointed out that a lot of the funding put forward as part of the plan wasn’t new. Mr Miliband has called for £30 billion to be invested in low-carbon industries over the next 18 months in order to support 400,000 additional jobs. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas also believes that the climate plan doesn’t go far enough. She has called for a complete restructuring of the economy and for the scrapping of Britain’s £27 billion road-building scheme.
Claims that Mr Johnson’s climate initiatives aren’t ambitious enough appear to be supported by the fact that the £4 billion pledged as part of this scheme is worth just one twenty-fifth of the colossal £100 billion being spent on HS2. However, the Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the BBC that the £4 billion of government funding “will help to bring in three times as much in terms of private sector money”. As far as electric cars are concerned, this money would go towards things like: developing new batteries (£500 million over the next four years); incentivising people to buy electric cars by providing £582 million worth of grants and developing new charging points for electric vehicles across England (an investment worth £1.3 billion). For the climate plan to be fulfilled, two things are required. First, there must be sufficient infrastructure (such as charging points) to support the running of electric cars. Secondly, there must be sufficient political will to provide the necessary funding for the scheme to work. Whether Chancellor Rishi Sunak is willing to empty the UK’s wallet further following the economic damage sustained during the pandemic remains to be seen.
Although it has faced a lot of criticism, there has been a great deal of optimism surrounding the Prime Minister’s proposal to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars. Addressing concerns surrounding the government’s plan Mike Hulme, a professor of Human Geography at Cambridge University, argued that critics should not “nit-pick about precise details” and that they should “endorse the direction of travel that has been set for the next decade”. Several prominent organisations and individuals have done this. For example, the plan was described as a “landmark” by Greenpeace. Meanwhile, Alistair Phillips-Davies, the Chief Executive of energy supplier SSE, called it “a really important step in getting the green recovery going” and Jonathan Marshall of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit even went so far as to say that the banning of petrol and diesel cars is “easily the biggest pro-climate action from a UK government since hastening the end of coal power”. Despite the concerns that have been raised about the ten-point climate plan and about the shortcomings of proposals to electrify the British car sector, the grounds for optimism are solid. Some might argue that carbon-emitting power stations are required to power electric vehicles, but it must be remembered that they run regardless of whether there are electric vehicles on the road or not. It seems like a good opportunity to eliminate at least one source of carbon emissions. The Prime Minister has also expressed his goal of shifting Britain towards renewable forms of energy (most notably wind, hydrogen and nuclear power). If this goal is fulfilled, then maybe the pollution coming from power stations might one day be eliminated. This would be a huge step in obtaining carbon neutrality.
Overall, the ten-point climate plan and proposals to ban the sale of petrol-powered cars are not perfect. But they do provide grounds for hope. It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Britain undoubtedly has many miles to go to reach its goal of attaining carbon neutrality by 2050, but the electrification of the car industry may provide the necessary impetus for that journey to begin in earnest. Tanya Steele from WWF-UK puts this another way. In her view, the ten-point climate plan, and the electrification of cars that comes with it, has “fired the starting gun on the action we need to see”.