I have over the past few years deliberately avoided commenting on government policy in relation to the end of petrol and diesel transport and the equally vexed question of gas heating. As I understand it, you will no longer be able to purchase a new petrol vehicle from 2030 and hybrid vehicles from 2035 and that gas heating will be phased out after 2032. This is because of the government’s commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, one of the most ambitious in the world. In 2021, the government set two additional interim targets to run a net zero power system and reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035. This is part of the global effort to reach net zero. More than 70 countries, including the biggest polluters – China, the United States, and the European Union – have set a net-zero target, covering about 76 per cent of global emissions. Yet it is already clear that the global net zero commitment will not be reached by 2050. The Glasgow Climate Pact called on all countries to revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their Nationally Determined Contributions by the end of 2022, but only 24 new or updated climate plans were submitted by September 2022.
While there is no reason why, and many reasons for having a net zero objective for 2050, we need to be clear that, although the UK is one of the twenty most polluting countries in the world, even if it reduced its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, it would have negligible impact on the overall level of global greenhouse gases. Bodies such as Extinction Rebellion may well have called for emissions to end by the end of 2025, but science and common sense alike suggest that this is improbable.
The government is committed to installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 to replace gas boilers. Heat pumps use electricity rather than gas and are more efficient than a boiler though as some users have found they do not keep their houses as warm as gas. The government is offering grants of £5,000 to help homeowners install a heat pump. However, in February 2023, the Lords Climate Change Committee described this scheme as ‘seriously failing’. Currently, only 50,000 heat pumps are installed annually, meaning the government’s 600,000 target is ‘very unlikely to be met’.
Transport accounted for just over a quarter of UK emissions in 2021, making it the largest emitting sector. By 2028, it wants 52 per cent of car sales to be electric. In 2021, 11.6 per cent of car sales were electric. The CCC says that this is ahead of schedule and that the market is ‘currently growing well’. To meet higher demand, the government wants 300,000 publicly accessible charging points by 2030. This represents more than a ten-fold increase from present levels. It has pledged over £350m to fund charging infrastructure.
Despite government grants to improve the take-up of net zero technology, though in June 2022 grants for electric cars were stopped, convincing people to invest in the modern technology faces a major problem. Even if individuals would like to have an electric car or a heat pump instead of a gas boiler, they face two major problems. The first is the cost. At present buying a new or second-hand electric vehicle is between £5,000 and £10,000 more than the equivalent petrol model. Even before the cost-of-living crisis, this placed them well out of the pockets of much of the population. The government appears unwilling to recognise that for most people and despite all the propaganda produced on climate change and net zero, moving to innovative technology is something that the well-off middle-classes with their often-heightened sense of being campaigners for climate change can afford and which the poorer in society cannot. We are already a society of the haves and have-nots and the move to electric vehicles simply reinforces that.
The second issue is the technology itself. I recognise that this is a constantly developing process and that, with time, the technology will catch up with what people want from the technology. Recent reports suggest that the mileage possible from putting the maximum change into the car battery has been inflated by up to 50 per cent. For instance, a friend with a new electric car was told that it would run for 250 miles and then found when he was half-way up the M5 that he ran out of charge after 120. This is bad enough but when he tried to find a charging point, he found that the next available one was 50 miles away. It’s not surprising that people who purchase an electric car then go back to a petrol one as the paucity of charging points and the inflated cost of their usage made popping into the local petrol station seem decidedly attractive. It’s all very well with government producing targets for electrification of personal travel but until the cost of significantly reduced and the infrastructure brought up to scratch there is little incentive to move from petrol to electricity other than the self-satisfying feeling you get from knowing that you’re ‘on the right side of history’.