Why Electric Vehicles Alone Aren’t The Silver Bullet For Addressing Worsening Air Quality

You could be forgiven for thinking that electric cars are a magic bullet for addressing everything from worsening air quality right through to climate change. In June, the Government announced that an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will be introduced to encourage the use of electric vehicles, with the aim that ‘almost every car and van will be zero-emission by 2050’. It follows a £100m scheme launched in London last year to encourage greater use of electric vehicles. And just this week, Swedish carmaker Volvo has become the first traditional automotive firm to announce a full shift away from the internal combustion engine, as it unveils plans for every Volvo car to have an electric engine from 2019. So does this spell the end of the internal combustion engine? And what does this all mean for the environment?

The reality is that, while demand for electric vehicles is steadily rising, albeit from a very low base, claims that they will represent the majority of transport vehicles in the next ten years are likely to be over-optimistic.

Latest figures from The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) revealed that just 4,444 electric vehicles were registered in June versus 129,169 petrol vehicles. In short, it doesn’t look like the majority of Brits will be giving up their petrol powered vehicles anytime soon, particularly when you consider that the average life span of a car is 14 years. And even if they did, the infrastructure doesn’t yet exist to support the wide-spread use of electric vehicles. As a case in point, there are only 37 public charge points currently in the whole of Wales. There are also concerns that the Grid would currently struggle to support the mass scale use of electric vehicles.

There is no doubt that electric vehicles have a key role to play in decarbonising transport, and it’s important that the Government, car manufacturers and organisations such as the Renewable Energy Association and other stakeholders continue to fund and support what is a really important technology. However, we need to keep a sense of perspective here and we shouldn’t expect to see them become the mainstream vehicle of choice in the near future. It’ll take time.

Unfortunately however, time is something the Government doesn’t have when it comes to cleaning up our air. 40 million people in the UK are living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution, and WHO figures released earlier this year revealed people in Britain are more likely to die from dirty air than those living in some other comparable countries.

According to the Government’s own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, at present the transport sector represents a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions, higher than any other sector. Clearly the Government is right to focus on decarbonising transport. But if electric vehicles aren’t the answer in the immediate to short term, what is?

Frustratingly, the answer is staring the Government in the face and has been for some time.

With petrol registrations on the up and only expected to rise further in light of the current negative headlines connected to diesel, cleaning up petrol has to be a priority. So it’s disappointing that the Government appears to be hesitating on introducing a new greener fuel called E10 containing 5% less fossil fuel than current petrol.

Already available and popular across Europe, North America and Australasia, E10, which contains 10% of the renewable transport fuel bioethanol, would be the emissions equivalent of removing 700,000 vehicles from UK roads. To put that in perspective, that volume of vehicles is equivalent to a traffic jam stretching from London to Moscow. Furthermore, it requires no consumer behavioural change and, since 2016, it has been the optimal reference fuel for all new cars meaning any car made since then actually runs best with E10 in it. Indeed, by 2020, 99% of cars on the road will be warrantied to run on E10 according to the SMMT.

There’s no doubt that E10 represents one of the quickest, easiest and most cost effective ways of decarbonising transport and tackling air pollution.

However, the Government has failed to act for several years and is procrastinating on a number of important policies, including its Clean Growth Plan and amendments to the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, which will have major implications for carbon saving and air pollution. Such time wasting is unfathomable and the UK is now in real danger of missing legally binding targets relating to renewable transport fuels and air quality, which could prove costly.

The new Minister in charge of transport and the environment at the Department for Transport, Jesse Norman, has a real chance now to make an immediate difference to both combatting climate change and air pollution. The solutions are there. But is the political will to implement them?

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