The centrepiece of the Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’ was a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030.  

Let’s not underestimate how significant this is as a statement of UK intent. The PM had been under intense pressure from the car industry to set a later date, but in the end opted to set one of the earliest deadlines of its kind in the world. As Europe’s second largest car market, this commitment from the UK sends a clear signal around the world.

Useful though the 2030 ban will be to jumpstart the market for electric vehicles (EVs) in the UK, the ban on its own won’t bring about the necessary reductions in emissions from road transport. A 2019 Friends of the Earth report estimated that we would still need to reduce traffic on our roads by anywhere between 20% and 60% by 2040 to reach our carbon targets.

Whilst electrification of the vehicle fleet is an essential part of decarbonisation, we need to keep a clear sense of proportion about the role EVs can play in reducing emissions, improving social equity, and tackling congestion. There are three sticky problems that EVs can’t fix on their own: effective reduction of pollution; lifecycle carbon reduction; and social equity:

  • Pollution: The reduction in local air pollutants such as NOx emissions is the most obvious and immediate benefit of switching to EVs. However, these air quality benefits will be undermined if in reducing the running costs of motoring, EVs lead to more traffic and congestion on our roads, with slower traffic speeds causing increased pollution from other vehicles. It is also important to reduce tyre particulate pollution which is increasingly recognised as a serious health issue.
  • Carbon: EVs produce fewer carbon emissions per mile driven than diesel or petrol cars when the emissions from the fuel or electricity are counted on a well-to-wheel basis. However, this doesn’t account for the emissions across the whole lifecycle, from manufacturing to decommissioning. As the production processes shift to using renewable energy whole lifecycle benefits of EVs will grow but today there is no such thing as a zero emissions vehicle.
  • Equity: No citizen can participate in our society unless they have access to transport. In the UK today, 40% lowest income households have no access to a car. Some EV policies may also have the ‘unintended consequence’ of encouraging more driving, and therefore reducing demand for public transport. An example of this can be seen in Norway, where measures to drive ULEV take-up (including tax incentives, free parking, free access to bus lanes and no charges on toll roads) initially saw a reduction in the commuter-share of public transport.

Faced by these shortcomings in an EV-focused transport decarbonisation project, we need to assert the need for increased investment in public and active transport. We must avoid public transport becoming a major casualty of the roll out of EVs. The inefficiency of our current transport system is already staggering both in terms of carbon and movement of people. Single occupancy trips account for around 60% of journeys and 96% of the car fleet is stationary at any given time. Public transport provides a more efficient way of moving people both in carbon and movement terms and is key to reducing pollution and congestion; a double decker bus can take 75 cars off the road. 

At the same time price incentives are not aligned to the environmental costs of different travel forms: rail travel is seven times more carbon efficient than air travel, but the cost of flying has fallen while rail fares have increased. Transport systems need rethinking rather than simply electrifying, with investment in public transport and active transport being at the heart of an equitable transition to a sustainable future. Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, the case for mass transit remains as strong as ever. 

We also need a new road pricing and taxation framework that accounts for the full costs of road transport on communities and the planet. The switch to EVs provides the chance for an honest conversation with the public about road taxation. This is surely an opportunity not to miss. We need a system that can levy tax on both conventionally-fuelled and electric vehicles fairly. Otherwise, we risk finding ourselves in an unsustainable situation where petrol and diesel drivers continue to pay all the tax for using the roads.

Professor David Begg has proposed in a recent article for Transport Times how government could de-risk road pricing politically. The government could set up an independent commission with cross party representation and delegate authority to the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) in consultation with the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) to set motoring taxation.

Including proposals for a national road pricing scheme alongside the 2030 ban would have made the government’s new 10-point plan a real game changer. Road pricing has the potential to replace diminishing receipts from fuel duty and other road taxation, whilst driving down the frequency of car use and traffic congestion.

Victor Hugo once said, “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come”. Road pricing has been talked about for decades, but perhaps finally its time has come.

Claire Haigh is the CEO of Greener Transport Solutions and former Chief Executive of Greener Journeys, a campaign dedicated to encouraging more sustainable travel. She is also Executive Director of the Transport Knowledge Hub; a Director and Vice Chair of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and a Judge for the National Transport Awards. She chairs the Delivery & Impacts Independent Review Panel for the Government’s Joint Air Quality Unit (DfT/Defra), and has been an Adviser and Board Member of Transport for Greater Manchester. She is a columnist for Passenger Transport and writes regularly for Transport Times.