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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 25% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. Over half the UK’s transport emissions  (52%) come from cars.

Electric vehicles (or EVs) offer one method of reducing emissions. In May 2019, the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) suggested that all new vehicles should be electrically propelled by 2035, if not sooner, to achieve the net zero target.

The UK Government is accelerating the transition to zero emission cars and vans. In November 2020, as part of the Government’s 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution, the then Prime Minister announced that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be phased out by 2030 and that all new cars and vans would be zero emission by 2035.

What are EVs?

EVs run, either partially or wholly, on electricity stored on board the vehicle in batteries or produced from hydrogen. Some types of EV qualify as zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) or ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs), whereas others do not because their emissions are too high. ZEVs, for example, emit no CO2 emissions at the tailpipe, whereas ULEVs must have reported tailpipe emissions of less 75 g/km of CO2.

The market for EVs is immature yet growing. The latest data for Q3, 2022 shows that 14% of new car registrations in the UK were battery electric vehicles (BEV) with a further 5% being plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). However, most cars on the road in the UK are fuelled by petrol and diesel. At the end of September 2022, 2.5% of all licensed road vehicles in the UK were plug in vehicles, although this did represent an increase from 1.6% in September 2021.

Government measures to support EVs

The Government has encouraged the uptake of EVs via a variety of strategies over the past decade. Some key examples include:

  • In July 2021, alongside the transport decarbonisation plan, the Government published a 2035 delivery plan, which outlined the policies and investments the Government is taking to support the transition to zero emission cars and vans.
  • To help achieve its 2030 and 2035 targets, as part of its Net Zero Strategy, the Government confirmed its plan to introduce a ZEV mandate from 2024. The mandate will set annual targets for the percentage of manufacturers’ new car and van sales that need to be zero emission from 2024 onwards.
  • The Government has a variety of schemes to support the provision of charging infrastructure, including in people’s homes and workplaces.
  • The Government’s Taking charge: the electric vehicle infrastructure strategy was published in March 2022 setting out the vision to remove charging infrastructure as both a perceived and real barrier to the adoption of electric vehicles. The provision of charging infrastructure was also included in amendments to the Building Regulations 2010 in June 2022.

Electricity Demand

The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget Report (2021) estimated that electric cars and vans could increase electricity demand by around 30 terawatt-hours (TWh) by 2030, and 65-100TWh by 2050. This compares to a system-wide electricity demand of 300TWh today (projected to increase to 600-900 TWh by 2050).  According to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) and Ofgem, the electricity requirement for an electric vehicle is “almost three quarters of today’s typical household consumption”.

Environmental Impact

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 its sub-components, as well as the particulate matter emitted on-street.

The shift to EVs will require more batteries to be manufactured. This opens up opportunities, such as the potential for the UK to develop battery production facilities, but also poses challenges. 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.

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