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To hit zero carbon by 2030 we need traffic reduction, not just a ban on the sale of petrol cars

Even if we hit the 2030 target, how long before the last of the UKs 30 million diesel or petrol vehicles is finally taken off the road? writes Baroness Jones. | PA Images

4 min read

Electric vehicles do less damage to the climate than most petrol or diesel cars, but still contribute to carbon emissions. Electric charging points must use only renewable energy to make the switch to electric worthwhile.

It’s brilliant that we are finally dumping the combustion engine. It will save thousands of lives currently lost to air pollution, but to deal with climate change we need traffic reduction as well.

I have been arguing with Boris about electric vehicles being the solution to all our problems since he was Mayor in 2010, when he published his first big plan for a green transport revolution. It didn't happen then, and I have doubts whether he will make it happen now.

£1.3bn to accelerate the rollout of charge points for electric vehicles in homes, streets and on motorways across England is a lot, but not enough. Serious planning and Huge amounts of private money will be needed to expand the existing network of 21,000 charging points to over twenty times its current size by 2030. A huge transformation is required, so why don’t we combine it with a shift in the way we live, rather than just a different type of car?

In 2019, there were 2.3 million new cars registered in Britain, but only 37,850 were battery powered. Even if we hit the 2030 target, how long before the last of the UKs 30 million diesel or petrol vehicles is finally taken off the road? This is a climate emergency – electric vehicles do not mean an end to pollution. 

Electric vehicles do less damage to the climate than most petrol or diesel cars in the UK, but they still do damage. If the electricity isn’t green, then the vehicle isn’t green. It is therefore vital government creates a rule that electric charging points must use only renewable energy. Anything less, leaves question marks about the value of the switch to electric.

Electric vehicles are a good start, but nowhere near the whole answer

There needs to be some realism about how big a step forwards this EV revolution will be. Transport is now the UK’s largest sectoral source of carbon emissions, accounting for a third of our total carbon output. It is the only sector where emissions have not reduced.  Technical fixes are never enough.

Despite all the fuel efficiency and carbon reduction measures of the last 20 years, emissions from transport actually went up in 2018. To hit zero carbon by 2030, we must reduce the total number of cars, rather than just make them all electric.

A government sponsored calculation published in 2008 had an optimistic ‘extreme’ scenario where we had 5.8m EV cars and 14.8m Hybrid cars by 2030, yet it only reduced the total transport sector emissions by 17%.

Reducing emissions by a fifth is great, but it’s still way off zero emissions by 2030. I accept that the 2008 study is out of date, but we are way behind their optimistic schedule. The number of conventional vehicles has gone up – and so has their average mileage.

The 2008 study assumed a third of electricity would come from renewables by 2030, and while we are on track to deliver that, we could do so much better.

Electric vehicles make things better, but they don’t eliminate the problem. To do that you have to challenge the ‘car is king’ culture. They still add to congestion on the roads, take valuable space for parking, and drivers still have accidents. Plus tyre wear from electric vehicles still creates particulate pollution. Traffic jams might smell better, but the disruption to communities continues.

As Leo Murray points out: “Manufacturing a battery powered electric passenger car emits 6-16 tonnes of CO2e. As one and a half metric tonnes of metal, plastic and glass carrying an average human payload of little more than 100kg, privately owned cars are in use for just 4% of the time, spending the other 96% of their time parked. Each car parked on the street turns twelve square metres of the public realm private.”

The rapid transformation to electric vehicles gives us the opportunity to rethink how those vehicles are used and to boost the public transport alternatives to private vehicle use.

Above all, we need traffic reduction – i.e. fewer vehicles, rather than £25bn being spent on new roads to accommodate traffic growth. It's possible the pandemic will bring permanent change to the way we work, reducing our need to travel as much and keeping us more local. This will be good for the global environment, but the government has to react positively to this and not try to keep us in a hypermobile past.

Electric vehicles are a good start, but nowhere near the whole answer.


Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a Green Party member of the House of Lords. 

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb - Cleaning up our polluted air and ending the climate crisis are part of the same overall goal