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In Brief: Transport

(UrbanImages / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

In an occasional series, staff from Parliament’s libraries give The House choice nuggets from the archives. This week, Professor Grant Hill-Cawthorne, librarian of the House of Commons and managing director of research and information, looks at transport

Transport is a broad topic, which takes unexpected twists and turns. It seems like a straightforward idea, getting people from one place to another. But in reality, there are so many considerations, and the infrastructure required is so intricate, that implementing a relatively small change can have implications on policy that are wide ranging.  

The move to electric vehicles feels like a relevant case in point. According to government figures, in the United Kingdom transport is responsible for 25 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and of that, cars account for 52 per cent. As part of its plan to reduce emissions, the government has announced that 100 per cent of new cars and vans sold will have zero emissions by 2035. But what does this mean for drivers? 

It certainly means a huge change in consumer behaviour. At the end of September 2022, 2.5 per cent of all licenced road vehicles in the UK were electric, although that number appears to be growing year on year. While they represent just a small fraction of the total vehicles on the roads, the number has increased significantly over the past decade, with electric and hybrid vehicles becoming more visible. 

Electricity requirements for these vehicles are also, unsurprisingly, significant. Electric cars need around three-quarters of the amount of electricity consumed by a typical household and their increasing proliferation will of course impact on the UK’s demand for energy overall. 

With the move to electric comes the need for infrastructure for battery charging. Certainly, in urban areas it has become more common to see vehicle charging points. At the beginning of 2023 there were around 37,000 public electric charging devices installed in the UK, with the largest numbers in London and Scotland. For context, the government estimates that around 300,000 charge points might be needed should petrol and diesel vehicles be phased out.

The term “range anxiety” was coined to describe the concern many of us have about how far we can expect to get in a battery powered car before it runs out and leaves us stranded nowhere near a charging point. The increasing frequency of charging points not only allows users to charge their cars but also helps to reassure potential buyers that they won’t be left high and dry should they move to electric.

Batteries are obviously a crucial component of an electric vehicle, to the extent that they represent about 40 per cent to 50 per cent of their value. The anticipated growth in production of EVs therefore means an increase in the demand for batteries, and forecasts suggest that the battery market in the UK alone could be worth around £9bn per year by 2040. At present, batteries are manufactured predominantly in Asia, with no major producers located in the European Union or United States. This represents both a challenge to the supply chain for EVs as well as an opportunity to develop a new industry in the UK.

Despite the challenges, the ambition to move to zero emission vehicles has been broadly welcomed. Several manufacturers have announced changes to the vehicles they will be producing, with a focus on new electric and carbon neutral cars. Change is happening and our driving habits are likely to look very different over the next 10 years. Hopefully too, our air will be cleaner as we move towards net zero. But the way is not straightforward, there are many important decisions to be made as we travel this path. 

Read more about electric vehicles in the House of Commons research briefing Electric Vehicles and infrastructure by Holly Edwards, Iona Stewart, Becky Mawhood and Paul Bolton and consult the House of Commons Library website for more topical and impartial research, data, and resources

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