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Electric dreams?

Bridget Fox's picture
Electric car charging

Electric vehicles are at the centre of the Government’s industrial strategy. Are they also the solution to our air pollution and climate change challenges?

Electric vehicles (EVs) are rapidly moving from the margins to the mainstream – at least when it comes to Government policy. 

The Clean Growth Strategy reports that 1 in every 5 electric vehicles driven in Europe is made in the UK, and that Highways England is tasked with helping develop “one of the best electric vehicle charging networks in the world”.

Last year’s Air Quality Plan talked about the UK as a global leader in the market for electric vehicles, and the new Clean Air Strategy goes further, arguing that the UK low carbon sector has "the potential to grow by an estimated 11% per year between 2015 and 2030 – four times faster than the rest of the economy”.  It’s clear that the focus on EVs is as much economic as environmental.

But is the strategy matched by action? The commitment to end petrol and diesel car and van sales by 2040 means two more decades when children will still grow up breathing dirty air.  To secure real benefits, Government action needs to move further and faster.

A 2030 target is the latest that should be acceptable, bearing in mind that cars will stay on the road long after purchase. Such a move would not only save lives but could help add £3 billion to the UK economy and create 14,000 industry jobs, while reducing the current gap in meeting the UK’s carbon budgets by up to 85 per cent, according to new reports from Green Alliance and WWF-UK.

We'd also like to see the Office of Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) grants include funding towards e-bikes and e-cargo bikes.  As part of the focus on industry, this could be targeted to help small businesses and would give a shot in the arm to the growing number of UK based e-bike manufacturers.

EV’s impact depends on how clean the manufacturing process is, how the electricity to power them is generated and how we manage waste batteries. Research from T&E confirms that even when powered by the most carbon intensive electricity in Europe, EVs still emit fewer greenhouse gases over their lifecycle than a conventional diesel vehicle would do.

Electric cars are still cars: they won’t do anything to help reduce congestion or improve road safety. The problems caused by car dependency, including social exclusion, physical inactivity and suburban sprawl, will still be with us. They continue to produce damaging particulate matter (PMs) from tyre and brake wear. There are also practical challenges in providing a public charging network, without encroaching on pavements or competing for kerb space with bikes and buses. 

Air pollution and transport: time to clear the air, the latest report from Campaign for Better Transport’s thought leadership programme Tracks, shows that more needs to be done to reduce emissions from all forms of road transport. Alongside practical recommendations for buses and deliveries, it argues that much of the solution lies in measures to provide good quality networks for public transport, cycling and walking.

Newer cars are only part of the solution: we need fewer cars too.

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