Environment

Petrol cars mean UK will miss carbon emissions target, says report

Car companies who want to get started on the transition to zero-carbon emissions are struggling under poor government planning, the National Audit Office said

Cars are the biggest contributor to the UK's carbon emissions

Researchers said SUVs and high levels of car use were cancelling out an increase in electric car sales. "Outer London traffic" by nikoretro is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The UK is will miss its climate targets for planet-friendly transport as car carbon emissions fell just 1 per cent in 10 years, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

The 2030 target to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars “galvanised” the industry to start work on the transition to electric vehicles, but a lack of long-term government planning is holding companies back, according to the report.

“Transport is the largest contributor to UK emissions, yet the Government doesn’t even have a plan to ensure that we will be ready for the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2030, let alone zero emissions by 2050,” said Kerry McCarthy MP, Labour’s shadow minister for green transport.

More SUVs and traffic on the roads was cancelling out a rise in electric car use, according to the NAO researchers.

Since 2011, total car carbon emissions fell roughly one per cent, which was “less than the Department for Transport expected”.

The average new car carbon emissions in the UK fell year on year between 2011 and 2016, but grew again over the following three years due to pollution-heavy vehicles like SUVs and more people taking more journeys by car.

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The NAO called for ministers to ramp up plans and spending to make sure it can ban new petrol and diesel cars in 2030 as promised.

“The NAO is absolutely right to call for a clear plan from the Government in reaching net zero emissions from cars,” McCarthy added.

“Labour’s Green Recovery plan would prioritise building zero emission vehicles in the UK and rapidly rolling out the charging infrastructure required for a smooth transition to cleaner transport.”

Ministers have spent £1 billion on incentivising the use of planet-friendly vehicles but the NAO said there was a “lack of clarity” over what that cash was meant to deliver.

By September last year, 1.1 per cent of all cars were classed as “ultra-low emission”, which means they emit less than 75 grams of CO2 per kilometre travelled. That can include vehicles run purely by electric or hybrid engines. 

Sales of these cars made up eight per cent of the market, which is an increase but shows the Government must invest in “substantial growth” if it is to hit its climate targets.

This government is going further and faster to decarbonise transport by phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030,” a Department for Transport spokesperson said.

“Ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) now represent nearly 11% of the new car market. Alongside the billions we are investing to support industry and consumers to make the switch to cleaner vehicles, we are proud to be a global leader in the development and manufacture of ULEVs.

“We will set out a plan later this year on how we will deliver these new ambitious phase out dates.”

One of the biggest barriers to widespread electric car use is charging infrastructure. By October last year, there were nearly 19,500 publicly accessible charging points, up from 1,000 in 2011.

But the majority are on private driveways, with government funding helping create 142,604 charging points for off-street parking.

“The number of ultra-low emission cars on UK roads has increased, but meeting the government’s ambitious targets to phase out new petrol and diesel cars in less than a decade still requires a major transition for consumers, car makers and those responsible for charging infrastructure,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

“Government now has the opportunity to reflect on what has gone well and better target its interventions and spending to secure this fundamental change and deliver the carbon reduction required.”

Ministers should report progress against clear milestones at regular intervals, researchers said, with there being little guidance on the journey between where car use is in the UK now and reaching net zero by 2050. 

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