The electric fix?

Bringing forward the ban for selling petrol and diesel vehicles to 2030 will not get us to net zero carbon emissions quickly enough. We must also urgently and rapidly reduce traffic. 

Techno-fixes like electric vehicles (EVs) risk giving us the comforting but false illusion that we can carry on with business as usual. That more difficult changes to our lives like how and how often we travel don’t need to be considered or can be put off for another day. In fact, the Department for Transport is using its projections of ever increasing traffic levels to justify its £27 billion RIS2 road building spending spree. It’s completely ignoring the question as to whether this traffic increase is desirable, let alone sustainable.

Research by transport consultancy Transport for Quality of Life, shows that even with EVs we must also make reductions in traffic of between 20-60% by 2030 if we are to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This is because by 2030 the majority of cars on the road will still be fuelled by petrol and diesel engines. And it is the next 10 years that are going to be critical as to whether we succeed in seriously tackling climate change.

There is another problem with the Government’s announcement and that is the date of 2035 for phasing out hybrids. These have a carbon footprint closer to conventionally fuelled cars, rather than electric cars. As recent research shows, the claimed carbon emissions from plug in hybrids are vastly understated, so allowing these cars to continue on our roads until 2035 will further undermine our ability to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough.

Road transport emissions have barely fallen since 1990 and are now the single largest carbon-emitting sector in the UK. The independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) has repeatedly warned that without rapid action on transport emissions the UK will not meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (covering the period 2023-2032). Further research this year by Transport for Quality of Life showed that 80% of the carbon savings from switching to electric vehicles will be wiped out by the £27 billion roads programme we are challenging in court

EVs are not the silver bullet imagined, and reliance on converting all cars to electric ignores all the other harmful impacts of car use. Electric vehicles don’t solve congestion, nor do they encourage people to become more physically active and reduce pressure on the NHS. They still make streets feel dangerous if driven too fast and still create pollution, especially microscopic particles from tyres and brake pads. Tyre wear is one of the biggest sources of microplastics in our rivers, oceans and lungs. 

However, it’s not just driving EVs that can cause problems, there are also issues with their manufacture and potentially with generating enough electricity to power them all. The rare minerals needed for EV batteries can cause significant human rights and ecological problems in the countries where they are mined. Whilst the electricity required could result in the mass industrialisation of our countryside with solar and wind farms, or new nuclear power plants. 

Electric vehicles are undoubtedly part of the picture of tackling climate change, but we must not kid ourselves on their own they will be enough. We still need to make fundamental changes to our lives which reduce the need to travel. This needs to start with better planning and to stop making things worse by building more roads and car based developments. Making walking and cycling and cheaper public transport the natural first choice for our everyday journeys as Grant Shapps aspired to in his foreword to ‘Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge’, has to be a priority.

The COVID pandemic has shown that many of us can make enormous and beneficial changes to our lives, but we all need help to make those changes permanent. The current focus on attention grabbing headlines masks a cynical approach by the Department for Transport in tackling climate change. It isn’t any wonder that it has singularly failed to deliver any meaningful reductions in carbon emissions since 1990. Unless it is prepared to change, to stop making things worse, and to actively promote traffic reduction, all it will be doing is kicking the can further down the street, leaving it for future generations to deal with the mess it’s helped create.

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