Documents to download

The UK has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Transport was responsible for 26% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, making it the largest emitting sector of the UK economy. Over half (52%) of the UK’s transport emissions come from cars.

Electric vehicles offer a way to reduce these emissions, because full battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles produce zero carbon emissions at the tailpipe. In February 2024 the government said “the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is a crucial step towards achieving the UK’s net zero target.”

In November 2020, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the sale of new fully petrol and diesel cars and vans would be phased out by 2030, and that all new cars and vans would be zero emission by 2035. In 2023 then Prime Minister Rishi Sunak changed this phase-out date to 2035.The 2024 Labour party manifesto pledged [PDF] to restore the phase-out date of 2030 “for new cars with internal combustion engines”.

In 2021 the government said that 2040 would be a ‘backstop’ phase-out date for new non zero-emission vehicles of all other types, including HGVs and buses.

Progress on the EV transition

The market for EVs is small yet growing. Just 3% of cars (931,000) were battery electric in the UK at the end of 2023, and 7% were hybrid electric (using an electric motor as well as petrol/diesel). Battery electric cars accounted for 16% of all new car registrations in 2023, an increase from 1% in 2018.

In its 2024 inquiry into EV strategy, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee said that demand for electric cars is being constrained due to their upfront cost, inadequate charging infrastructure and general consumer scepticism.

Conservative government EV policy 2020-2024

In January 2024, the government introduced a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate for car manufacturers. The ZEV mandate is intended to provide greater certainty to manufacturers, and provide a greater range of EV options to consumers.

The mandate specifies the minimum proportion of car manufacturers’ sales that must be zero-emission vehicles. This will increase from 22% in 2024 to 80% by 2030, and 100% in 2035.

Improving charging infrastructure

The Conservative government took a range of steps to improve EV charging infrastructure. There are now a variety of UK-wide grant schemes to support new EV chargepoints outside homes and at workplaces. In England, Local Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (LEVI) funding is available for local authorities. The Conservative government also planned to open a Rapid Charging fund (RCF) to increase provision of chargepoints at motorway service stations.

In 2021 the government legislated to require EV chargepoints to be installed in a range of new build homes and other buildings. In 2023 it introduced regulations to improve the customer experience of on-street EV charging, including contactless payments. In 2022 the British Standards Institute (BSI) produced a voluntary specification for the installation of accessible chargepoints, to improve EV charging for people with disabilities.

The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own strategies for EV infrastructure.

UK electric vehicle industry and global competition

The UK automotive industry has started repurposing production towards EVs, requiring large investments to upgrade factories and increase domestic battery manufacturing capacity. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), trade body for the sector, said that “more than £20 billion” was invested in zero emission vehicle production in the UK in 2023.

There is global competition to attract investments in the electric vehicle supply chain. China became the biggest producer of electric cars in 2023 and Chinese exports are expected to increase further in coming years, putting European and US manufacturers under pressure.

The US has responded with generous subsidies to support its domestic industry through the Inflation Reduction Act and in 2023 imposed 100% tariffs on imports of Chinese EVs. The EU has also introduced measures to support European manufacturers and in July 2024 announced 17-38% tariffs on EVs from China. The UK has not so far applied tariffs on EV imports.

The government published an Advanced Manufacturing Plan and a UK battery strategy in November 2023 that set out its policy to support UK industry. With reference to global competition, the government said it would “not be drawn into a distortive subsidy battle”. The plans focus on the UK’s strengths, such as its R&D sector, and included £2 billion funding for the UK automotive industry.

EVs and electricity demand

Increasing the number of EVs will reduce petrol and diesel demand but add to electricity demand. This could increase pressure on Great Britain’s electricity grid network, operated by National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO). There has previously been concern about the challenges to the grid, in terms of electrical capacity and grid balancing.

However National Grid ESO has said that although demand for electricity will increase, there will be a managed transition that will be within the range the grid can handle.

EVs also have the potential to help balance a more flexible and low carbon grid through developments that allow their batteries to charge at optimum times, known as “smart charging”, and to supply electricity in times of high demand, known as “vehicle to grid”.

EVs and environmental impact

The total greenhouse gas emissions from an EV are known as its “lifecycle emissions”. These combine the emissions from manufacturing the vehicle (which tend to be higher than manufacturing internal-combustion vehicles), powering the vehicle through its life (which tend to be lower than powering internal-combustion vehicles), and decommissioning the batteries at the end of their life.

Calculations of lifecycle emissions vary based on the methodology and assumptions used. The International Energy Agency’s lifecycle emission comparisons calculates that in the UK, a medium sized EV has higher manufacturing emissions that an internal-combustion engine equivalent, but the lower emissions from powering the EV mean its cumulative emissions are lower after 3 years of use.

There are various other environmental considerations related to EVs, including the use of critical minerals in batteries, which have challenges with sustainable extraction, and how best to recycle or reuse batteries.

Documents to download

Related posts