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Electric vehicles – which country is leading the charge?


Barely two months into his presidency, French president Emmanuel Macron continues to throw down the gauntlet on tackling climate change. Having banned new oil and gas exploration, his government has now set 2050 as the year by which France will be carbon neutral.  This is genuine ambition, announced as 19 world leaders lined up against Donald Trump and his increasingly ridiculous-looking decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. France’s plan, in tone, as much as content, looks like leadership—to “make our planet great again!”

Electric vehicle charging © Gareth Redmond-King, 2017Electric vehicle charging © Gareth Redmond-King, 2017

Petrol & diesel ban

The overall ambition isn’t what made the headlines here. Rather it was the promise to ban sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. To UK ears, that sounds a big deal. Despite burgeoning air quality problems and greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles rising, the UK government has so far been unable to get to grips with transport emissions, and unwilling to take radical action on vehicle pollution. Ending the internal combustion engine era in just two decades might sound, therefore, quite the leap. But is it actually that challenging?

India has made a similar commitment by 2030—a full decade earlier; the Netherlands and Norway by 2025. France has around 18 times the motor vehicles per capita of India, although India almost certainly has more vehicles than France, in real terms.  Netherlands and Norway are much smaller, albeit with similar per capita levels to the French; but with 7 per cent and 29 per cent market share for electric vehicles (including hybrids) respectively, they’re starting from higher bases than France’s 1.5 per cent.

UK commitments

What of the UK? Well, we’ve signed up to an international grouping called the International Zero Emissions Vehicle Alliance (ZEV Alliance), along with Germany (1m electric vehicles (EVs) on its roads by 2020), Norway, the Netherlands and several Canadian and US states—including California & New York. Although that involves only a fairly vague commitment to phasing out non-electric vehicles by 2050, the government has made stronger noises recently.

The UK Industrial Strategy references EVs in relation to smart power grids as well as the role of the Office for Low Emissions Vehicles (OLEV).  OLEV is a government body which, among other things, is supporting cities around the UK to test out infrastructure changes to encourage the transition from fossil fuel vehicles.

The Queen’s Speech, otherwise fairly light on non-brexit legislation, included an “automated and electric vehicles bill”.  This is to deliver a manifesto promise to “lead the world in electric vehicle technology and use,” ensuring “world-class infrastructure which supports the rapid adoption and use of electric vehicles.” The manifesto repeated the ZEV Alliance commitment for “almost every car and van to be zero-emission by 2050,” and the government has committed £600m this parliament to grow the market for ultra-low emission vehicles. One of the bill measures will require all motorway service stations to install rapid charging—which elicited the following response from Ecotricity founder, Dale Vince, whose company has largely delivered this already…

We need more ambition

At WWF, we don’t think the UK is ambitious enough.  BP forecasts that there will be 100m EVs globally by 2035 (against 1.2m in 2015) and Bloomberg project that they’ll account for over half of all new car sales by 2040—becoming cheaper than internal combustion cars in most countries by the middle of the next decade. We’d like 100 per cent of new UK car and van sales to be ultra-low emission by 2030 at the latest. Battery prices are plummeting, air pollution is estimated to claim 40,000 lives a year here, and our transport emissions are rising. And it’s not as if car manufacturers are resisting—as Volvo led the way last week with a commitment that all of their new car sales would be electric or hybrid from 2019!

But, as with France and India, it needs a step-change, not just encouragement; market share now is just 1.4 per cent. The government must target its £600m (and probably more) on incentives for people to switch—including a radical approach to getting diesel vehicles off our roads soonest. It also needs to be imaginative in support for the roll-out of smart charging infrastructure—particularly in towns and cities, where it’s harder to charge vehicles at home. The sooner we do it, the sooner we reap the benefits. That’s not just in terms of cleaner air and tackling climate change, but industrial benefits to our car industry and the jobs it supports—jobs in some of the parts of the UK that could most do with seeing the benefits of growth.

(First published by Prospect Magazine on 14th July, 2017)

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