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Is the UK stalling its transition to electric vehicles?

5 min to readESG
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced sweeping reforms of the UK’s net-zero policies, including the deadlines for phasing out petrol and diesel engines. What does this mean for electric vehicles?
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Road transport is responsible for more than a fifth of the UK’s CO2 emissions, and it’s a focal point of plans to become a net-zero economy by 2050. The timeline for phasing out petrol and diesel engines was set out in 2017 and shortened in 2020, and it’s helped the UK become one of the world’s leading markets for electric vehicles. One in six new cars sold so far this year is battery-electric, according to the SMMT.

However, that process is now being delayed. Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has announced longer deadlines for phasing out petrol and diesel car and vans as part of wider reforms to the government’s Net Zero strategy. It’s drawn widespread criticism, but the effects might not be as disruptive as they sound. Here’s why.

When is the UK banning petrol and diesel engines?

The transition to electric vehicles is happening in stages, and this isn’t the first time the deadlines have been altered. These had been as follows:

Sunak’s announcement removes the 2030 cut-off date for non-hybrids, but all new cars and vans will still have to be zero emission by 2035 – in line with the European Union. The changes are designed to offer more choice during the ongoing cost-of-living crisis while recognising that demand for electric vehicles is already outpacing expectations.

How will delaying the ban on combustion engines affect electric vehicles?

Although the delay enables manufacturers to sell non-hybrid cars and vans after 2030, they are likely to become increasingly rare and uncompetitive by that point. Manufacturers are adapting to changing consumer demand as well as tightening regulations across Europe, and this will affect the types of vehicle available in the UK:

Fleet demand for electric vehicles is already ahead of the market. Incentives for plug-in hybrid and electric company cars were renewed in April 2020 and are in place until at least 2028. The latest LeasePlan EV Readiness Index places the UK in third place in Europe, trailing only Norway and the Netherlands, while 49% of new Business Contract Hire deliveries are battery-electric, according to the BVRLA.

How has the automotive industry responded?

Sunak’s announcement drew fierce criticism from across the industry and political spectrum.

Alfonso Martinez, UK Managing Director of ALD | LeasePlan, the country’s largest vehicle leasing company, urged the government to stay on track, commenting: “Now more than ever, we need to demonstrate consistency and commitment to achieving environmental and sustainability goals. Pushing back timelines could send a confusing message to both businesses and consumers and hinder the ongoing efforts to decarbonise the mobility sector.

“For the past few years, we’ve been working in lockstep with the government’s ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles, helping UK businesses and public sector bodies prepare their drivers and decarbonise their fleets. The end results are always the same: once people make the switch to electric, they realise just how good these vehicles are - quieter, more economical, cleaner and cost effective.”

Paul Hollick, chair of the Association of Fleet Operators, added: “Given that the motor industry and their fleet customers have spent literally billions working towards the 2030 target and take the issue of zero emissions very seriously, any major change would reflect poorly on how sincerely this administration takes both the needs of business and the environment.

“This is a crucial subject where massive investments have been made and is not just something that should be politicked in the expectation of short-term gain. Really, what we want to see is more help from the government in order to meet the 2030 deadline, especially when it comes to light commercial vehicles.”

Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK, was also critical, stating: “Ford has announced a global $50 billion commitment to electrification, launching nine electric vehicles by 2025. The range is supported by £430 million invested in Ford’s UK development and manufacturing facilities, with further funding planned for the 2030 timeframe.

“This is the biggest industry transformation in over a century and the UK 2030 target is a vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future. Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 [undermines] all three. We need the policy focus trained on bolstering the EV market in the short term and supporting consumers while headwinds are strong: infrastructure remains immature, tariffs loom and cost-of-living is high.”

Published at 22 September 2023
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22 September 2023
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