UK cannot meet climate targets with ICE ban alone

24 June 2021

The UK government’s upcoming plans for the decarbonisation of transport must focus on improving quality of life. However, this cannot be achieved by the switch to electrically-chargeable vehicles (EVs) alone.

This is the view of the UK think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). In a new report, it has analysed the UK Committee on Climate Change’s carbon budget. The IPPR suggests that the current approaches to reaching net-zero carbon emissions could lead to things getting worse, rather than better, without additional measures.

The analysis suggests that the country could see an 11% rise in car traffic between 2021 and 2050. There will also be a 28% rise in car ownership, with 10 million more cars on the road by 2050. This leads to ‘serious questions’ around the resources required to build these vehicles and the amount of land and street space needed for parking.

Better solution needed

Currently, the UK government is backing an accelerated push to zero-emission motoring. New internal-combustion engine (ICE) vehicles will be banned from sale in 2030, with hybrid and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) following suit in 2035. At this time, only zero-emission models, including battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCEVs), will be allowed to roll out of new-car showrooms.

However, the IPPR believes that this approach places too much emphasis on EVs as the solution for carbon-emission reductions. There is not sufficient support for alternatives, including affordable public transport, walking and cycling.

According to the organisation, over 90% of the highest-income households own at least one car, while over 20% own three or more. However, only a third of households in the bottom 10% income own a car. Therefore,  an improved public-transport system would be more beneficial for people on lower incomes.

‘The government’s current preferred strategy places an overwhelming focus on the shift to electric vehicles,’ said Luke Murphy, head of the IPPR environmental justice commission. ‘While superficially attractive because of its offer of continuity, such an approach will not deliver for people or planet.

‘We need to massively expand the provision of and affordability of clean public-transport options, such as trains, buses and trams, while helping more people to regularly walk and cycle, alongside a shift to electric vehicles for those that need them.’

Currently, BEVs are much more expensive to buy than their ICE counterparts. The materials required to build batteries can cost more than those used in engines, while their limited volumes also keep prices high. A report by the UK Parliamentary Action Committee (PAC) suggested that to achieve the ambitions, consumers must be convinced of the affordability and practicality of zero-emission cars. It pointed out that in comparison with ICE equivalents, prices of these models are too high, with take-up uneven across the country.

What does the future hold?

With the UK setting a deadline of 2030 for the end of new ICE vehicle sales, there are numerous permutations as to how consumers will act. Two of the more concerning possibilities from a carbon-emissions point-of-view are that buyers will rush to get ICE vehicles in 2029, meaning a lacklustre year for new-car registrations in 2030. The other is that buyers will turn to the used-car market, which will feature older, less efficient engines. These vehicles, however, will be cheaper to buy and therefore appeal to those who cannot afford a BEV or cannot own one for practical or logistical reasons.

The latest car-parc analysis by the UK Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) suggests the average age of a car in the UK is 8.4 years. Additionally, 27.9% of the parc is over 12 years old. Therefore, it may not be until 2042 that a vast majority of UK vehicles are non-ICE.

Proposals made

The IPPR says that the drive to net zero is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the way we all travel. Its report sets out a vision of a future with far more affordable clean-transport options that can improve people’s health and wellbeing, while providing a better environment for nature and access to an EV for those who need it.

It proposes several steps to achieve this transition fairly. These steps include help to buy and fair access to EVs if and when they are needed, with a national charging rollout included. The group also recommends that the ban on buying ICE vehicles for large commercial fleets should be brought forward to 2025 to ensure that businesses take action to decarbonise.

The issue of bringing bans forward was recently raised by the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. The academic institute suggested that if Sweden were to achieve its ambitious climate targets, it would need to bring a proposed 2030 ICE ban forward by five years.

However, if these actions are taken, they are likely to be met with opposition from the automotive industry. Currently, the market is becoming driven more by regulation than ambition, with decisions taken to meet targets and legislation rather than inspiring competition.

More needs to be done to ensure that fair access to all forms of carbon-free transport is secured for drivers. With the UK being the largest market to date to set an early end to ICE sales, much of Europe will be watching to see how the move is dealt with and the results.