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…

Digital Greenwich: a local council approach to smart cities

By Steven McGinty

According to research by Lucy Zodion, a leading designer and manufacturer of streetlighting equipment, smart cities are not deemed a priority for local government. The findings show that 80% of local authorities have little or no involvement with smart cities, and that only a few had specific teams managing smart city initiatives.

The research explains that the challenging financial environment was the main reason for the lack of prioritisation. However, it also finds despite funding challenges, some local councils have been successful at introducing initiatives, through working in partnership with private organisations and universities and encouraging local businesses to participate in developing solutions.

On our blog today, we’re going to look at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, a local council quietly leading the way in the smart cities revolution.

Greenwich Smart City Strategy

On the 22nd October 2015, Greenwich council officials launched their smart city strategy at the Digital Greenwich hub. Denise Hyland, Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, outlined the council’s reasoning for investing in technology, explaining that:

In the face of the rapid increase in the borough’s population and in the face of globalization and technological change, we have to invest in the future and face these challenges head on, right now.”

The strategy introduces four key principles:

  • Inclusivity – the strategy will benefit all citizens, communities and neighbourhoods.
  • Citizen centric – citizen engagement will be transformed to ensure citizens are at the heart of policies and that their needs are met.
  • Transparency – citizens will be informed of changes and desired outcomes and accessible information will be provided to all citizens.
  • Standards and good practice – the Royal Borough of Greenwich will become a ‘learning organisation’, willing to listen and share ideas, and using evidence to inform decision-making.

The strategy also explains that it will transform four main areas:

  • Transforming Neighbourhoods and Communities – the council will reach out to the Boroughs diverse communities, including strengthening links with key organisations to improve the quality of life for citizens, and introducing projects to reduce digital exclusion and promote digital skills.
  • Transforming Infrastructure – the council will improve fixed and mobile connectivity in the Borough and encourage the widespread use of sensors in the built environment, to provide the building blocks for smart city projects.
  • Transforming Public Services – innovative pilot projects will be introduced to help ensure public services are co-ordinated and citizen-centric.
  • Transforming the Greenwich Economy – many jobs in Greenwich’s economy are vulnerable to automation, therefore the council will look to make businesses more resilient to technological change, as well as encourage the development of digital SMEs.

Bringing together the right team

Digital Greenwich has been established to develop and take forward Greenwich’s smart city strategy. The in-house, multidisciplinary team, provides expertise in the areas related to smart cities, such as the modern built environment, implementing Government as a Platform, and economic regeneration in the digital age.

The team will play an important role in shaping thinking, managing pilot projects to mitigate the risks of innovation, and ensuring that the council’s strategy is aligned with emerging practice.

 Partnerships

The ‘Sharing Cities’ Lighthouse programme

The ‘Sharing Cities’ Lighthouse programme is a €25m project, which involves cities from across Europe investigating how innovative technology can be used to improve the lives of citizens. As part of this programme, Greenwich will act as a demonstrator area and trial several initiatives, including:

  • introducing 300 smart parking bays to help drivers find parking quickly and conveniently
  • developing a shared electric bicycle and car scheme to reduce the number of citizens using private cars
  • installing solar panels in local homes to improve energy efficiency
  • using the River Thames to provide affordable heating for local homes.

Digital Greenwich and Surrey University

On 27th July 2016, Digital Greenwich and the University of Surrey set up a partnership to develop smart city technologies, with a focus on creating ‘resource-efficient, low-carbon, healthy and liveable neighbourhoods’.  The Digital Greenwich team will now have access to the university’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), which will enable it to develop and trial smart city solutions. The university have highlighted that the centre’s 5G infrastructure (the next generation of communications technology) will provide the opportunity to scale solutions to a city or national level.

The university’s 5GIC is funded by a £12 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council.

Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Denise Hyland, commented that the new partnership will act as a ‘valuable catalyst’ to their smart city strategy and help strength the Borough’s economy and improve services.

Involving industry

GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment)

GATEway is a collaborative project involving academia, government and industry in the field of automated vehicle research. It’s led by TRL, the UK’s transport research centre, and has several aims, including:

  • safely and efficiently integrating automated transport systems into real life smart city environments
  • inspiring industry, government and the wider public to engage with using autonomous transport technology
  • understanding the technical, legal, cultural and social barriers that impact the adoption of autonomous transport technology

One of the companies involved in the research (based at the Digital Greenwich Innovation Centre) is Phoenix Wings Ltd, who specialise in innovative mobility solutions, fleet management and autonomous vehicle technology. In 2014, they announced ‘Navia’, the first commercially available 100% driverless shuttle.

The GATEway project is funded by an £8 million grant by industry and Innovate UK.

Final thoughts

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) have highlighted that local council spending power reduced by 23.4% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2014–15. This is clearly significant, particularly when there is pressure to meet greater demands.

However, to conclude, we’ll leave you with the comments of Professor Gary Hamel, a leading management expert,

My argument is the more difficult the economic times, the more one is tempted to retrench, the more radical innovation becomes the only way forwards. In a discontinuous world, only radical innovation will create new wealth.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles:

Why the future of public transport has to be green

Image by flickr user Justin Pickard via Creative Commons

Image by flickr user Justin Pickard via Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

Ending our use of oil, coal and natural gas by the end of the century? It seems an impossible task, but this week’s G7 Summit closed with the announcement that the leaders of 7 leading industrial nations had agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels. As one of the G7, the UK is part of this long-term commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is also legally-bound, via The Climate Change Act (2008), to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

These national and international targets will only be met however if we all make practical changes to our patterns of energy consumption. Organisations like the Energy Saving Trust Foundation and NESTA have pointed out that providing new technologies is not enough to increase public engagement with alternative energy. Success is dependent on getting real people to use these technologies in everyday situations.

Use of renewable energy in public transport

Earlier this week I attended an event on the use of renewable energy in public transport. Not being a transport specialist, but interested from the point of view of community development and social exclusion, it was a useful introduction to some of the innovative work that is underway in Europe.

Organised to present the results of the REPUTE (Renewable Energy in Public Transport Enterprise) project, the event explored the challenges of ensuring accessible public transport in rural areas. People in rural areas typically travel 50% further than people living in urban areas. Travel which is essential to daily life such as going to school or work, going shopping or getting to doctors and hospitals all requires longer journeys, mostly by car or bus. A lack of integration between different modes of transport also makes travel by car more convenient in rural areas.

Pilot projects showcased at the event included personal travel planning in Fort William; solar-powered real-time bus information signs in the Highlands and Islands region; and electric vehicle rental in rural towns in Portugal.

A new guide written by Oxford Brookes University was also launched at the event and includes lots of examples of community-based transport and energy schemes.

Signs of progress

I picked up on a few heartening signs of a shift in attitudes. Many local authorities are publicly supporting alternative energy use in their fleets and providing charging points. A recent survey showed that Scottish councils in particular are leading the way in the UK in the adoption of electric vehicles, with Dundee placed in the number 1 spot and South Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Fife also in the top 5.

  • Aberdeen now has the largest fleet of hydrogen fuel buses of any authority in Europe.
  • 2 of Edinburgh’s bus routes have switched completely to low carbon hybrid vehicles.
  • There are more electric vehicles in Scottish car clubs than the total in car clubs in the rest of the UK.
  • Elsewhere in Europe, Oslo’s initiative to open up bus lanes to electric vehicles has become a victim of its own success with the announcement in May that the law is being changed. A fifth of new cars bought in Norway in the last 3 years have been electric.

A key aspect of pilot schemes is to introduce the public to new energy solutions in a way that is engaging. For example, visitors to the Brecon Beacons National Park can hire electric cars to travel around the area, turning eco travel into a fun activity in itself. A new ‘poo bus’ which runs in Bristol and is fuelled by bio-waste, is a witty way to spark debate about alternative fuel sources. And in Oxford, the city is transforming into a Living Lab for integrated transport experimentation.

Public transport as eco-transport

The need for a transport system which is cleaner and less-energy dependent is clear – the transport sector is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

However investing in innovative renewable energy technologies at a time of budget constraints, requires government and local authorities to show leadership and vision. More importantly, there won’t be a step change in behaviour and attitudes without imaginative approaches to community engagement. Locally-led projects such as those highlighted by REPUTE’s guide are a great way to do this.


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Plugging in or opting out?

car exhaust

by James Carson

Visitors to the this year’s Geneva Motor Show , which closed on Sunday evening,  may have noticed some signs that the times are changing: half of the space on Renault’s large exhibition stand was dedicated to battery-powered cars; new electric vehicle models were unveiled by BMW, Volkswagen and Kia and Porsche exhibited the Panamera S, a hybrid model able to travel for 20 miles on nothing but battery power.

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