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UK’s electric vehicle strategy needs a shock to the system amidst shifting Net Zero goalposts

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 6, 2024
Summary:
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been playing political games with the government’s decarbonization commitments, so a deceleration of the UK’s electric vehicle strategy is unsurprising.

Electric vehicle charging EV © chuttersnap - Unsplash
(© chuttersnap - Unsplash)

A key priority for the UK achieving its legally binding Net Zero targets by 2050 is successfully transitioning drivers to the use of electric vehicles (EVs). However, according to MPs on the Environment and Climate Change Committee, the government’s strategy is lacking - and according to the conclusions in its report, has faltered on previous successes that have been seen in recent years. 

The Committee is urging the government to make a number of interventions, if it truly wants to see the end of new petrol and diesel car sales by 2035 (its current target). 

However, against a backdrop of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently eyeing the government’s Net Zero commitments as an opportunistic focus to claw back some votes ahead of a general election this year, rather than the urgent priority that they should be given the climate crisis, the faltering EV strategy is perhaps unsurprising. 

The Chair of the Inquiry into EVs, Baroness Parminter, said: 

Surface transport is the UK’s highest emitting sector for CO2, with passenger cars responsible for over half those emissions. The evidence we received shows the Government must do more – and quickly – to get people to adopt EVs. 

If it fails to heed our recommendations the UK won’t reap the significant benefits of better air quality and will lag in the slow lane for tackling climate change.

The government’s Zero Emissions mandate, which requires manufacturers to sell an increased proportion of EVs each year, was introduced in December 2023. However, according to the Committee progress is not happening fast enough and major barriers remain, including: 

  • Electric cars are still more expensive than petrol and diesel

  • The availability of public chargepoints across the UK is highly variable, and the Government has missed important targets for the public charging infrastructure

  • Major funding programmes have faced serious delays

  • Many consumers are anxious about whether and where they will be able to charge electric vehicles reliably, affordably and quickly, and about the battery range of second hand cars

Committee recommendations

Frustratingly, the Committee’s recommendations are hardly surprising and much of what they want to see from the government is common sense (I won’t hold my breath). Drivers have had a lifetime of using fuel-enabled vehicles and changing habits isn’t easy - particularly when switching to an EV requires thinking about journeys, especially longer journeys, in a different way. A combination of education, infrastructure, access to data about charging locations and support with costs are all necessary to make buying an EV appealing. 

One of the key points that the Committee heard from a range of witnesses was that the government’s messaging has not been clear or consistent enough to give industry and the public the confidence that they need. For instance, the Prime Minister has made an effort to consistently highlight the challenges of achieving Net Zero, rather than pointing to the benefits that could be gained. More carrot, less stick. 

Lauren Pamma, Programme Director, Green Finance Institute, told the Committee: 

Consumers need more information and a trusted source of information. There are so many mixed messages out there and confusion about making the right decision that consumers are worried about what they should do. 

The report released this week argues that consumers are faced with conflicting claims and alarmist headlines, and what they need is a go to-source of information so that they can make informed decisions. The Committee said: 

The Government should take a more proactive and leading role in communicating a positive vision of the EV transition to consumers, and promoting comprehensive, clear, authoritative, accurate and balanced information. 

It should also develop a communication strategy in collaboration with industry partners and consumer organizations to provide clear, authoritative and trustworthy information.

In addition to information, up front costs are also an ongoing factor. According to a 2023 Auto Trader survey in 2023, 56 per cent of respondents said that the upfront costs associated with EVs are the biggest obstacle to adopting them. The UK’s EV market is expensive, with cars often costing north of £40,000, and yet the government has removed grants that previously existed to help. 

The report urges the government to explore targeted grants for EVs to stimulate the market and that these should apply to more affordable models. Only when the market matures and prices begin to fall should the government look at reducing incentives, the Committee said. 

In addition to supporting consumers with costs, the Committee is also pushing the government to support the rollout of public charging points. Despite funding schemes already being announced, they have suffered significant delays and progress across the country is variable. The report states; 

The Local Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (LEVI) Fund should be extended for three years to support local authorities to roll out public chargepoints. The Government should bring in new powers to instruct local authorities with insufficient charging infrastructure to take action.

Finally, the Committee suggests that the government consider options for reducing the cost of charging EVs where it can. Whilst in many cases EV charging costs less than petrol refueling - particularly when it is done at home - public charging can often be more expensive. This is especially true of ultra-rapid charging, which is sought after and helpful for drivers on longer journeys. 

Part of this expense is due to 5 per cent VAT being applied to home charging, whilst 20 per cent is applied to public charging. The Committee suggests that the government consider options for equalizing the VAT differential between public and domestic charging by reducing the public charging rate to fall in line with domestic charging, at 5 per cent. 

My take

I was using an EV car up until recently and had been for two years, but recently made the switch back to petrol (only because the company I was leasing from was experiencing financial difficulties and took my vehicle out of fleet). If I’d had the option to stick with an EV, I probably would have - but now I’m using a petrol car again it’s clear to me that there are a number of barriers to entry for the average driver. 

Firstly, the cost of buying an EV is extremely prohibitive. I purchased a second hand petrol car for approximately £4,000 - one that has low miles on the clock, full service history, and is not too expensive when it comes to ongoing costs. The upfront costs of purchasing an EV were too expensive for me to consider. 

Secondly, now I’m back with a petrol car, it’s noticeable how I think differently about travel. I use trains mostly where I can for longer journeys, but doing a journey with any significant number of miles in an EV was somewhat of a stress. Planning routes to charge points isn’t as easy as it should be and even when you do reach those charging stations, they’re often in use by other EV drivers and/or not working properly. I didn’t mind spending 40 minutes at a service station charging my car, but I did mind spending 2 hours trying to find a charging point that worked or was available. 

That stress would be manageable if I felt like the costs associated with the vehicle were too extreme to make it work - something has to give. If the government wants to change a consumer habit that has been embedded for a lifetime, it needs to make the switch easy, manageable and cost effective. Whether or not this government will listen, remains to be seen (particularly as it’s distracted by an upcoming election) - but if we want a green economy and to hit our Net Zero targets, swift action should be taken so that the average consumer sees EVs as an option. 

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