The UK government’s announcement to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040 sparked a lot of questions. So we’ve set out to explain why electric vehicles (EVs) are better for the environment, how they work, and how more of them on the road might affect you.
What difference would replacing all cars with electric cars really make?
The Committee on Climate Change estimate that if 60% of new cars on the road were electric by 2030, it would save 26 million tonnes of CO2. The UK government just announced a ban on the sale of new petrol-diesel cars and vans by 2040, but we think they can do better than that, which is why we’re calling for 100% of new cars to be electric by 2030.
Will switching to EVs help with air pollution?
EVs are not only good for the environment; they also produce no nitrogen dioxide, which is the main air pollutant in the UK affecting people’s health. Fully electric cars don’t even have exhaust pipes, and plug-in hybrids can and should run on zero-emission electric mode as far as possible, especially in places where air pollution poses a risk to people and nature. The one area where EVs don’t help much is with air pollution caused by tyres. This is one reason why public transport, car clubs, walking and cycling are also essential for reducing overall car use and tackling air pollution.
EVs still have to consume power – isn’t that power generated by fossil fuels?
EVs have a much lower carbon footprint than conventional cars. The electric motors they run on are around 3-4 times more efficient than internal combustion engines (which power petrol and diesel cars). Even when you factor in producing and transmitting electricity, electric motors are still around 60% more efficient. This means EVs would reduce carbon emissions even running on the electricity mix we have today – and their benefit will only increase as we phase out fossil fuels.
Where are the charging points for all these electric cars? And what if a household has two or three cars?
Right now there are rapid charging points at 96% of motorway service areas and thousands more in towns and cities. More charge points will eventually be needed as EV numbers increase, but this can be included in smart infrastructure planning.
For households, it’s probably not necessary to have multiple charge points, because you’re unlikely to need to charge your car every day unless you have a really, really long commute (and no workplace charging). And if you’re really stuck you can even charge up using a normal three-pin plug – although it will take a lot longer.
But electric cars can’t travel long distances, can they?
Actually, they can. Fully electric cars can do up to 300 miles on a single charge, compared to a maximum of 100 miles just a few years ago. And plug-in hybrid cars can travel up to 800 miles. Analysts expect EV ranges to keep on increasing in the coming years.
Of course, better batteries do mean more expensive cars. But if you have an EV at the lower end of the range and you’re planning a long drive, all you need to factor in is a half hour pit stop to charge up at a motorway service station.
What if the extra demand from EVs means more nuclear power generation, or increases fracking?
The main factor to consider here is when EVs are charged. If everyone in the country had an EV and they all charged it at the same time, we’d have a problem! But it’s easy to set EVs to charge at times when we have plenty of spare energy available. For example, at lunchtime when it’s sunniest or overnight when it’s windiest.
National Grid have calculated that the UK will probably need around 6GW of power capacity to meet peak EV charging demand in 2030 – provided we prepare now to manage the impact of EVs on the grid.
What about all the batteries these electric cars will produce – aren’t they bad for the environment?
It is important to make sure EV production, especially batteries, is done in the most sustainable way possible. There are no silver bullets to reducing our climate impact – all technologies have issues that must be managed, even renewables. While it is crucial to ensure sustainable production, the evidence points to an overwhelming environmental benefit from EVs, so we are comfortable supporting EVs as part of a broader vision of sustainable societies.
The exciting thing about EV batteries is that instead of being thrown away, they can be repurposed for use in people’s homes to store energy. This could enable homes with rooftop solar, for example, to have electricity bills close to zero. With the first generation of EVs soon to retire from UK roads, we can expect to see more and more homes giving these batteries a second life.
How are we going to recycle or get rid of the millions of petrol and diesel cars currently on the road?
Nobody is talking about replacing all petrol and diesel cars overnight. A ban on the sale of new petrol-diesel cars would mean car owners keeping their old cars as long as they normally would, replacing them with an EV only when it’s time to get a new car. As with all government policy, it’s important to ensure that the EV revolution is fairly funded and that costs and benefits fall to the right people. The UK government currently offers grants towards the purchase of EVs and home charge point installation.
A scrappage scheme, on the other hand, would focus only on a small number of the most polluting diesel cars. As with any product at the end of its useful life, as many components as possible should be reused or recycled, and the residual waste disposed of responsibly.
Why aren’t WWF looking at hydrogen as an alternative to petrol or diesel?
We are. Hydrogen has many benefits, and emits no CO2 or air pollution in use. However, it also has some big unanswered questions, the main one being: how will we produce all the hydrogen we need? In brief, it’s pretty cheap to produce hydrogen in dirty, carbon-intensive ways, but at the moment it’s expensive to produce it in a clean, renewable way.
So we’re definitely not ruling it out, but it hasn’t quite matured into a sustainable, viable option yet. EVs have, which is why they are the technology we’re focusing on.
What about people living in rural areas who rely on cars? How will they get enough charging points – and can EVs handle off-road or mountainous terrain?
Rural areas probably won’t need as many public charge points as urban areas, because rural homes are more likely to have off-street parking than urban areas, so rural residents are more likely to be able to charge their car at home (which is the cheaper option).
There is no good reason why electric motors cannot deal with off-road and mountainous terrain. Just as with normal cars, you’d need a car designed for that purpose. You wouldn’t do the Mongol Rally in a Mini – but you can do it in a specially modded Nissan Leaf. In fact, that’s exactly what Chris Ramsey from Aberdeenshire is doing this year to raise money for our friends in WWF-Scotland!
Aren’t EVs just a fad?
The shift to EVs is a fundamental step change, not just a fad. We cannot predict the future, so we cannot definitively say that other technologies (such as hydrogen fuel cells) won’t make a major breakthrough and overtake EVs. But on current market trends this looks unlikely.
The advent of driverless cars has the potential to fundamentally transform our transport system – but they still need energy to work! In our view, that energy should be electricity. A petrol or diesel driverless car would be an anachronism, like using a rotary dial telephone to communicate with a space station.