Electric cars are coming, so let's embrace this green motoring revolution

Electric car charging station

Electric car charging stations are a more common sight on the UK's streets - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Norfolk science writer Stuart Hobday suggests that in a decade electric cars will be the norm

Over the last few months there has been a steady stream of announcements that herald a major change in our lives in the coming years – electric transport is coming.

The growing acceptance of the evidence around global warming, and the visible effects of climate instability that this is causing, is beginning to lead to concerted action.

One of the main causes of the Greenhouse Effect in the Earth’s atmosphere is the increase in CO2 that has occurred over the last 200 years due to our burning of fossil fuels partly in order to power transport.

The Paris agreement that the UK government signed up to in 2016 involves a commitment to take measures which reduce CO2 emissions.

One of the most visible of these measures will be a gradual move away from petrol cars to electric cars.

Electricity can be produced by wind and solar sources and this change needs to run alongside the new emphasis on electric transport.

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Recent months have seen a mixture of public and private sector action.

In November 2020 the government announced significant investment towards two specific targets. Firstly that all new cars manufactured or bought in the UK will be electric by 2030. Secondly, that by 2035 all vehicles on the road will be ‘zero emission at the tailpipe’.

This was backed up by £1.8 billion of investment in infrastructure particularly towards the all important charging points that will be needed to keep electric vehicles powered and moving.

Tax incentives are already on offer for company cars and these have been effective. The move towards electric vehicles will be a key component of post-Pandemic economic stimulus, not just in the UK but around the world.

It is going to be a mixture of ‘carrots and sticks’. An example of a stick came in the announcement from the Mayor of London that the ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’ in central London will be extending from October 2021 to cover a wider area of central London.

From this year there will also be distinctive number plates for low emission vehicles which will make this type of zone initiative easier to administer and so more common in city centres around the country.

The government’s initiative has been backed up by private sector responses. Look at the websites of oil giants Shell and BP and you will find a subtle but significant shift away from fossils fuels towards sustainable power.

Both are investing heavily in electric transport. They realise it is the future. All the world’s giant car manufacturers are investing in the production of electric cars and the competition is driving technological improvements. Importantly this is already seeing reductions in the price of electric cars which will in turn encourage the car buyer.

Read More: Electric vehicle charging point goes live in market town

Last year saw record sales of electric cars in the UK of 108,000.

This growth in sales will in turn increase the demand for the infrastructure and electric powering points are now appearing on existing petrol forecourts. This in turn will encourage commercial, company and personal car vehicle purchases.

Those sales numbers bucked the trend caused by the pandemic which saw sales of petrol cars decline by 30%. All the trends are pointing towards a fast growth in electric cars, already happening in some countries such as Norway where 75% of cars are now electric.

However there is still a big challenge and there is a need for commitment from the car buying public. Those record sales of electric cars last year are still only 10% of total UK car sales and many were company cars.

The transition of habits will be one of the most difficult aspects of this. Habits of people buying and driving cars, as well as sales teams putting electric vehicles on a higher priority.

Driving the price down on individual cars will be a key component. The global picture is also challenging as the general demand for cars around the world doubled in the last decade and continues to rise.

Both the scientists and the critics will be monitoring the level of emissions.

There is a concern that the manufacture of electric batteries is in itself a cause of CO2 emissions.

There have been scare stories that electric vehicles do not offer the emission reductions they claim.

There have also been concerns raised by safety and disability campaigners about the effect that low noise vehicles will have on pedestrian accidents and these should be taken seriously. Our town and city centres will be very different with low pollution and noise levels.

There has been increasing evidence of the harmful health effects of petrol pollution and many people are looking forward to cleaner air.

There is still going to be a need for people to say “Do I really need to make this journey by car?”

Similar policy and financial commitments from public and private sectors to public transport, cycling and walking are still going to be important for the environment in the long term. However electric vehicles will be part of the answer.

There is a consensus in science that the burning of fossil fuels needs to stop, and electric vehicles backed up by electricity from sustainable sources is a key component of staving off further global warming. It’s a huge challenge and a big change but the transition to electric vehicles is one area in which we can all help.

Stuart Hobday was the founder of Norwich Science Festival, is a PHD student in philosophy of science at UEA and author of Encounters with Harriet Martineau.

  • This article was amended on February 27 to remove reference to a '10-fold' increase in CO2 in the third paragraph.

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