The end of the internal combustion engine, which for more than a century changed the way we lived in Britain, is nigh. No one but the motor industry thinks this dirty technology ought to survive. The refusal to accept reality is exacting a high price: Britain will miss its legally binding carbon emissions targets because transport, unlike all other parts of the economy, is not doing enough to curb the growth in emissions. There’s something shameful about an industry that was caught lying about how clean and efficient its cars were now seeming reluctant to purge itself of an outmoded technology that contributes not only to climate change but is behind the deadly concentrations of pollutants responsible for 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year.
There is a way out: rapid advances in battery technology mean that electric motors could replace fuel-and-piston ones. Britons could all whizz about in electric-powered cars, which emit no toxic filth. There are still emissions associated with the extraction, production and distribution of the fuel that generates the electricity, but the thinking is that this is easier to deal with than millions of polluting vehicles. To its credit, earlier this summer Theresa May’s government produced a “Road to Zero” strategy which outlined how the UK plans to reach its goal of ending the sales of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. Unfortunately, this cut-off date is not only five years later than that recommended by the government’s own advisers but it also stops short of a complete ban on petrol and diesel vehicles.
One has to wonder what Mrs May is waiting for. In the West Midlands this week, she pledged £106m to develop low-and zero-emission vehicles. But her government is not gripped by the fierce urgency of now. Only this week the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, warned that without changing course “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change” – a message that 132 MPs and 51 peers also delivered to Downing Street as she spoke to carmakers in Birmingham. The prime minister hears, but is she listening? The road to climate disaster is paved with good intentions.
Britain does have the capacity to be a world leader in electric vehicle technology. The country has the largest battery manufacturing plant in Europe. A fifth of all electric cars in Europe were produced at the Nissan plant in Sunderland – expanding sales would reduce the UK’s automotive trade deficit. Bringing forward the UK’s 2040 fossil-fuelled vehicle sales ban to 2030, and increasing fuel efficiency, could halve oil imports, potentially saving almost £7bn a year. But in 2017 Germany overtook the UK for the first time in electric vehicle sales. Britain’s lead is the government’s to lose. Ministers need to accept that the market alone won’t deliver the electric car models needed or the dramatic uplift in charging points required.
The pace of innovation is influenced by economic incentives: carrots and sticks must be used to meet social or environmental objectives. It’s outrageous that, while diesel sales are slumping and demand for electric cars is high, there’s little corporate push behind new electric models. Britain ought to take a page out of California’s book and require motor manufacturers to sell a fixed proportion of their overall sales as electric cars. The US state is on track to have 1.5m “zero emission vehicles” by 2025 – what the UK might have in 2040. The failure by industry to embrace electric cars ought to underline the fact the state cannot assume the animal spirits of business exist. It must help create them.