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The UK has committed to Net-Zero carbon emissions by 2050. Transport is currently the largest emitting sector of the UK economy, responsible for 27% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions; within this, cars are responsible for 55% of transport emissions. Electric vehicles (EVs, or sometimes known as Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVS)) offer one method of reducing emissions, with the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) suggesting that all new vehicles should be electrically propelled by 2035, if not sooner, to achieve the Net Zero target.

What are EVs

EVs run, either partially or wholly, on electricity, stored on board the vehicle in batteries or produced from hydrogen. Whilst cars represent 92% of the 432,000 ULEVS licensed (1.1% of all licensed vehicles) at the end of 2020, there are also electric motorcycles, taxis, buses, vans and heavy goods vehicles.

The market for EVs is immature, yet growing, with 8.5% of registered vehicles ULEVs in 2020. Meanwhile, only 1.8% of used car sales, responsible for approximately 80% of transactions, involved alternatively fuelled vehicles.

Government measures to support EVs

There have been a variety of strategies employed over the past decade to encourage the uptake of EVs. Since 2011, the Government have supported EV ownership through the plug-in grant scheme. Additionally, the Government plans to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2030, whilst only fully zero-emission vehicles will be sold from 2035. This will require significantly increased battery numbers, opening up the potential for the UK to develop battery production facilities.

The number of EV charge points per 100km of road in the United Kingdom has increased from 42 in 2011 to 570 in 2019. Whilst the Government expect most charging to take place at home, the CCC suggest 1,170 chargepoints will be required per 100 km of road by 2030. The Government aims to have a globally recognised EV charging network. This is supported by £1.3 billion funding, covering the strategic road network, homeowners, local authorities (for on-street charging), and workplace, alongside regulatory changes.

Due in Spring 2021, the Government are developing an overarching plan to decarbonise transport, the ‘Transport Decarbonisation Plan’, which will cover all road vehicles as well as the rail, aviation and freight sectors.

Electricity Demand

Currently, road transport uses approximately 500 TWh of energy. Although improved efficiencies may reduce this, the shift from petrol and diesel cars could increase electricity demand by 200 TWh. The use of smart charging or vehicle to grid technologies could significantly lower peak demands to be approximately only 8% greater than current peak power draw.  

Environmental Impact – why EVs are not the silver bullet

EVs improve local air quality and reduce point-of-use emissions; however they are not net-zero when considering the whole life cycle of a vehicle and sub-components, as well as the particulate matter emitted on-street. Further, batteries for EVs can require rare elements such as lithium and cobalt, which has raised environmental and ethical issues in countries where these elements are mined. There are also concerns over ‘peak lithium’ and future shortages constraining growth in the EV market.

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