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Slow progress on the Road to Zero

Former campaigner's picture
Electric cars charging in car park

The Government has finally published its long-awaited Road to Zero report, setting out a strategy for moving the UK’s road transport sector to a low carbon future.

There’s no doubt of the urgent need for such a move.  Unlike other sectors, transport’s CO2 emissions continue to rise, putting our ability to meet future carbon budgets at risk.  Road traffic is responsible for up to 80 per cent of poisonous NOx in urban areas, contributing to lethal and illegal air pollution levels.

Road to Zero identifies electric vehicles as the way forward, with modern hybrids seen as helping motorists make the switch to clean technology.  The strategy includes a £400 million Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund to help accelerate the roll-out of electric charging points.

While the commitment to invest in and promote electric charging points is welcome, there are practical challenges in providing a public charging network, without encroaching on pavements or competing for kerb space with bikes and buses. Councils can help by requiring publicly-accessible off-street charging points as part of planning applications or by prioritising off street car parking spaces for electric vehicles.

Despite Government rhetoric about being ‘a world leader in the zero emissions revolution’, and a sharp decline in new diesel cars being registered, the reality is that takeup of electric cars is painfully slow.  In the first quarter of 2018, there were still more than twice as many new Ford Fiestas registered as all new low emission vehicles put together.

It’s not helped by the motor manufacturers being reluctant to promote EVs compared to the energy expended marketing fossil fuelled cars. While around 30 per cent of consumers say they would consider buying an electric car, just 1.5 per cent of advertisement spend in 2017 was on zero emission models.  The very limited choice of electric cars, limited availability and long waiting times all contribute to low sales.

Overall the strategy fails to match the urgency of the situation

Ending the sale of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles is central to cleaning up transport emissions: but Road to Zero does not end their sale until 2040 – over twenty years from now. Giving concessions to keeping hybrids on the road will water down the already inadequate target.

Another generation will pass before we have real action on cutting harmful CO2 emissions and cleaning up deadly vehicle pollution. Interim 2030 targets for zero emission cars and vans are a small step forward, but not good enough.

The strategy also lets the freight sector off the hook: a voluntary target of 15 per cent cut in CO2 by 2025 is not nearly good enough. Road freight accounts for a fifth of transport carbon emissions, even though it only makes up five per cent of road mileage. Rail freight, the safer, cleaner low-carbon option, will be hobbled by the ban on diesel-only locomotives and the halting of electrification, while little is done to cut emissions from heavy goods vehicles  on the road. Continued investment in rail electrification, and developing alternative fuels for diesel locomotives, would make a positive contribution to the Government’s clean growth plans.

While we are critical of the Government’s slow pace, others are resisting any real change. FairFuelUK (FFUK) is promoting what it claims are "Effective, Proven and Practical Ways to Lower Vehicle Emissions" and asking their supporters to lobby MPs on this. We’ve taken a look at FFUK’s ideas: you can read our briefing here. Of the five solutions proposed by FFUK only one (E10 petrol) has any merit, and the Government is already consulting on licensing it, something we support. For the rest, like the magic weight loss pills that claim to offer an alternative to diet and exercise, they seek to avoid the inconvenient truth that a systematic change is necessary and long overdue. 

We need action now: ending all sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 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 research from Green Alliance and WWF-UK.

However, electric cars are still cars: they won’t do anything to help reduce congestion or improve road safety. They continue to produce damaging particulate matter (PMs) from tyre and brake wear. The problems caused by car dependency, including social exclusion, physical inactivity and suburban sprawl, will still be with us.

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. Cutting pollution and traffic will benefit motorists too, by giving them choice and cutting costly car dependence.

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