Plugging into the future: can electric vehicles clear the air?

“Electric Car2Go”by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Science tells us that improvements to our air quality bring real health benefits – fewer heart attacks, strokes and premature births, less cancer, dementia and asthma, and lower incidences of premature deaths.

Better health because of cleaner air has been a strong driving force behind efforts by local and national government to keep highly polluting vehicles away from city centres, where air quality can be especially poor.

Earlier this year, we blogged about initiatives to improve the air quality of cities by banning the most polluting vehicles that emit dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide and poisonous particulate matter.

Driving out diesel

There have also been important policy announcements to underline how seriously national and local authorities are taking the issue of air pollution. In July 2017, the UK government announced plans to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, with all fuel-powered vehicles to be banned from the roads entirely by 2050. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish Government unveiled plans to ban new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 – eight years ahead of the proposed deadline set out by the London government. These moves replicate measures introduced by France and cities such as Amsterdam, and Hamburg.

Electric currents

As diesel and petrol cars are phased out, alternatives, such as battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles are moving in. These have a lower environmental impact and could also help the UK to meet its target of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

At present, electric-powered vehicles make up a small part of the UK car market – just 0.9% of new cars are electric. But sales of electric cars have been rising – in June 2019 there was a 61.7% increase in battery electric vehicles registered in the UK, and in July electric car sales continued to accelerate (meanwhile, diesel registrations fell for the 28th consecutive month). This trend is set to continue as car manufacturers in the UK and overseas invest more in electric vehicle production.

Diesel and petrol cars could be phased out much more quickly if more drivers could be persuaded to go electric. But many are still reluctant to make the switch due to concerns about the distances that electric cars can travel between charges (the electric Volkswagen Golf, for example, needs recharging every 120 miles) and the availability of a robust charging infrastructure. But for most drivers, the leap in costs of switching to electric has proved the major stumbling block.

In the UK, the government has cut subsidies and grants for some hybrid and electric vehicles, leading to a slump in hybrid sales. By contrast, Norway’s government is leaving no doubt that they want drivers to turn away from diesel and petrol cars. The Norwegian government has backed up its ambitious goal to stop selling new gas and diesel passenger cars and vans by 2025 (15 years ahead of the UK government’s target) with incentives to go electric. These include tax breaks for electric cars, access for electric vehicles to fast-track bus lanes, plus discounts on parking and charging. Drivers are getting the message: in April 2019, almost 59% of all cars sold in Norway were electric.

Other countries are also joining the electric vehicle bandwagon, including France, the Netherlands, Germany and the world leader in electric mobility, China.

Meanwhile, in 2018, the House of Commons Business Select Committee said the UK government’s plans to ban diesel and petrol emitting vehicles were “vague and unambitious”. The committee was also critical of the subsidy cuts and the lack of charging points.

Putting the brakes on: the downside of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles have the potential to bring significant benefits to the UK economy, and many believe that Britain could become a world leader in electric car production. But this would require large-scale lithium-ion battery cell plants facilities. There are currently no plans for these in the UK, while China and Germany are setting the pace on battery production.

Although electric vehicles have been heralded as an environmental good news story, manufacturing their batteries requires raw materials such as cobalt, the mining of which has considerable environmental and human costs. At the same time, the electricity used to charge the vehicles is largely generated from fossil fuels. And, just like petrol and diesel vehicles, electric cars produce large amounts of pollution from brake and tyre dust.

Green for go?

Despite the drawbacks, electric vehicles are on the move. Manufacturers are launching new ranges to meet increasing demand and to comply with EU rules on carbon dioxide emissions limits. The International Energy Agency predicts there will be 125 million electric vehicles in use worldwide by 2030.

In Britain, the charging infrastructure is already growing, and  set to improve, further. The UK government is also proposing that all new-build homes should be fitted with charging points for electric vehicles. The Scottish Government has announced plans to make the A9 Scotland’s first fully electric-enabled road, and the city of Dundee is already making progress on zero-carbon transport. Meanwhile, in London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged that all London’s taxis and minicabs will be electric by 2033.

But, as a July 2019 report from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) warns, electric vehicles will not address the problems of congestion, urban sprawl and inactive lifestyles. The authors recommend that governments should be doing more to discourage people from driving, and shifting the focus of travel to more sustainable modes, such as walking and cycling.

Electric cars may help clear the air and bring subsequent health benefits. But they won’t drive away all of the challenges facing our motor-centric cities.


If you’d like to read more on this subject, take a look at our previous blog posts…

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