The U.K. will ban the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles from 2030, prime minister Boris Johnson has announced, pinning the future of personal mobility on electric vehicles.
But the plans have failed to win over policy experts and climate researchers who have spoken to Forbes.com.
The ban on gasoline vehicles—specifically cars and light goods vehicles powered by petrol and diesel—had initially been slated for 2040, but has been brought forward by ten years as part of a ten-point plan intended to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Hybrid vehicles, meanwhile, will be phased out by 2035. Electric vehicle take-up will be supported with an initial $3.7 billion of public funding to grow the electric charging network and to build “gigafactories” to produce batteries.
Among the other pledges made by the prime minister were some $654 million to develop hydrogen production, $1.3 billion to make homes more energy efficient, and a promise to plant 30,000 hectares of trees per year by 2025.
But while the ten-point plan was intended by the government to be seen as a bold and definitive climate platform, the proposals have come in for criticism from several angles.
Luke Murphy, head of the influential Institute for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Justice Commission, said that the ban on gasoline vehicles was welcome—but it would be actions, not words, that would make the difference on climate change.
“The phase-out of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 is an important step, but it won’t be enough just to switch to electric vehicles,” Murphy said. “If we attempt to replace vehicles one-for-one, it will be a huge draw on other environmental resources. We need to reduce car use overall, which means greater investment in sustainable public transport options, including rail and bus services, as well as more support for cycling and walking.”
Murphy said additional legislation would also be necessary to accelerate the rollout of electric vehicles, including regulations to require electric charging facilities in petrol stations, car parks, and home and office developments.
“The government will also need to consider what to do about the falling revenue from fuel duty as we switch to electric vehicles,” he said. “That could include the rollout of road pricing.”
Murphy pointed to IPPR analysis that found the government is investing only 12% of what is needed to tackle the climate crisis, which the institute estimates at £33 billion ($43 billion) each year.
“Overall, this doesn’t amount to the strategic plan required to meet net zero,” he said. “It doesn’t set out how we should go about achieving this significant challenge. How will we involve citizens and communities? What is the role of local authorities? What support will be provided to support industries in transition? There are many questions left unanswered.”
Meanwhile, Jillian Anable, professor and chair of transport and energy at the University of Leeds, told Forbes.com that while the 2030 ban sounded ambitious, it was in fact a minimum requirement for achieving net zero carbon emissions.
“It’s significant, in that the previous 2040 date meant that we had no chance to meet our emissions target,” Anable said. “A 2030 date means we have a slim chance. But even with 100% uptake of electric vehicles, we still have to reduce traffic on top of that.”
Several key points were missing from the government’s plans surrounding transport, Anable said, not least regarding the short-term consequences of the ban announcement.
“If you go with the science, which is to keep us within 1.5 degrees of warming per the Paris Agreement, what really matters is what happens between now and 2030,” she explained. “Right now, for every electric vehicle that is sold, about 17 [gasoline powered] SUVs are sold.”
The mass-buying of fuel-hungry vehicles like SUVs and trucks in the 2020s, Anable said, meant the benefits of later decarbonization efforts could in effect be cancelled out. With no accompanying tax or road charges on polluting vehicles, she explained, the call to ban gasoline cars could spur car manufacturers to push the sale of the most polluting vehicles over the next five to ten years, creating higher gasoline consumption.
“It’s possible that manufacturers will go for it in terms of pushing out those SUVs, because that’s where they get their profits, while consumers could say ‘no one will penalize me for driving what I want to drive, so why not have some fun?’” Anable said.
The alternative, she suggested, was a more gradual, market transformation approach. “This is where you start to ratchet down year by year, stopping the top 10% most gas guzzling cars from being sold, and the next year you ban the sale of the next 10% of the most gas guzzling cars, and so on down to zero,” she said.
In addition to the ban itself, Anable said the $3.7 billion being offered to support electric vehicles “paled in comparison” to the $35 billion that the government has announced it would be spending on building roads, thereby encouraging more road traffic.
Experts noted that all but $5.2 billion of the funding pledges had been announced previously. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany’s coalition government last year announced it would be spending $47 billion on a green recovery.
Mathew Riley, U.K. managing director of environmental consultancy Ramboll, said the British plan was lacking in specifics.
“While a welcome move, the government’s 10-point plan comes worryingly close to the wire,” Riley said. “We must move past declarations of intent and really get down to the detail if we hope to address the climate challenge at the scale and speed needed.”
Several important items were missing from the government’s plan, Riley said, including any indication of how the government intends to mitigate the climate impact of existing buildings and infrastructure which account for 40% of the U.K.’s carbon footprint. The $1.3 billion pledged to improve the energy efficiency of homes, he said, was “a start, but to make any meaningful impact we need action right across the built environment—this narrow focus simply isn’t enough.
“Effective and sufficient investment is equally as critical as policy and promises—otherwise such announcements are purely paying lip service to the environment crisis. At present, all 10 points are purely decarbonisation policies, when the UK also needs to build in climate resilience planning to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis.”
Of the initiatives unveiled, the ban on internal combustion engine vehicles is by far the most ambitious. Like most countries, the U.K. has been slow to adopt electric vehicles, with electric cars making up just 6.7% of new vehicle sales in September, according to the U.K. Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). The SMMT said its research indicated that half of U.K. car buyers thought a 2035 date would be too soon to make the switch away from conventionally powered gasoline vehicles, citing the high prices of electric and hybrid vehicles, and a lack of charging stations nationally.
For many reasons, the accelerated 2030 deadline could prove even more contentious.