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The UK’s Changing Net Zero Policy: Putting Internal Combustion back in the Driving Seat

In this article, Elliot Wright discusses the UK Government’s recent move away from the 2030 ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles, and what this means for the transition to electric vehicles going forward.

Amidst various U-turns on green policies, on September 20th Rishi Sunak announced that the UK ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars has been postponed by 5 years, now not coming into effect until 2035. This brings the UK back in line with the rest of the European Union, which is legally obligated to become carbon neutral by 2050. The Prime Minister's stated rationale is to ease financial pressure on the British public and offer them the freedom to embrace an electric future on their own terms free from the ruling hand of government. However, given an increased drive for traditional internal combustion engines across Europe, has Sunak's move forfeited the UK’s head start in leading this green technology and put internal combustion back in the driving seat?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, of the Conservative party. Image Credit: Number 10 on Flickr

According to the IPCC, limiting warming to around 2°C requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak by 2025 at the latest. Hence, it may be confusing as to why we would prolong the use of internal combustion engine cars for any longer than is necessary provided their known environmental impacts. The challenge lies in the internal combustion engine's role at the core of our transport sector, hence a systemic transformation of our entire transport system is required to facilitate a zero emissions future. Possibly the biggest hurdle to overcome is the lack of charging infrastructure available. In response, as recently as last year, the UK government committed £1.6 billion to expand the country’s charging network, closely matched by additional private investment. The rapidly improving infrastructure and falling cost of electric cars themselves mean it is expected that the majority of cars on the road will be electric by 2030 anyway, regardless of the law.

This was a policy change focused on the consumer, however, those impacted most will likely be automotive manufacturers. Jaguar Land Rover welcomed the change, having recently announced hundreds of new jobs in their existing plants in the West Midlands. The company is committed to being net zero by 2039 and this change has eased the financial burden involved in transitioning. However, Ford’s UK chair Lisa Brankin has urged the government to rethink the changes as automotive companies have already invested heavily to meet the government’s net-zero targets. While a delay of five years is unlikely to hugely impact the number of new petrol and diesel cars sold in the UK, it will instead provide a grace period for more manufacturers to make the shift to electric vehicles. In the context of the economics of these companies, this may be an important alteration to the ruling, however, any delay in halting greenhouse gas emissions may prove costly to the environment.

Car being refuelled with petrol or diesel. Image Credit: Ivan Redic on Flickr

In the European Union, cars and vans account for approximately 15% of the regions carbon emissions, making them a crucial focus of climate policy. However, Sunak is not the only European leader to roll back on commitments to electric vehicles, with Germany leading the charge to introduce a loophole in the EU's plan to phase out conventional cars by 2035. This loophole would permit the registration of new internal combustion engine vehicles if they run on fully synthetic fuels, sparking similar proposals from countries including Italy and Poland and raising questions about the supremacy of electric vehicles. Synthetic fuels, while carbon-neutral during production, still release pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulphur, known causes of respiratory problems especially in urban areas. Nevertheless, they offer the advantage of utilising existing filling station infrastructure and could serve as a temporary solution amidst a microchip shortage affecting electric vehicle production.

Yet, electric vehicles are not without their challenges, particularly related to battery production and disposal. Battery manufacturing relies on resource-intensive processes with environmental consequences such as intense water usage and the release of toxic gases, but electric vehicles can surpass traditional counterparts in reduced emissions if charged with renewable energy. The issue of battery disposal remains, as recycling technology is available but underutilised. However, electric vehicles remain the most efficient long-term option, as synthetic fuels involve wasted energy in their manufacturing process and still emit harmful pollutants.

The decision to postpone the UK's ban on new petrol and diesel cars until 2035, aligning it with the rest of the European Union, has ignited a critical debate on the future of personal transportation. While framed as a consumer-friendly move, it raises questions about the government’s focus, urgency, and commitment, to fighting climate change and creating a stable environment in which the private sector can drive the global innovation key to this global motoring revolution. The transition to electric vehicles is already underway, let’s hope that Suank’s move hasn’t forfeited the UK’s head start and put internal combustion back in the driving seat.

About the Author: Elliot Wright is a second year student studying an MSc in Environmental Geography at the University of York. Key interest areas are travel and transport, and of course the environment, both natural and physical.

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