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…

Climate change: we can reclaim cities from the car without inconveniencing people

This guest blog was written by Richard Kingston, Professor of Urban Planning and GISc, University of Manchester and Ransford A. Acheampong, Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities, University of Manchester.

Since the 1920s, the car has revolutionised the way people travel; eliminating the constraints of distance while offering a personal, fast and convenient way to get from one place to another. Cities have been designed and built to make space for cars, and many cities which existed centuries before the advent of the car reshaped their streets to accommodate it.

The car, along with investments in major road infrastructure, has allowed people to live further away from city centres. The result has been that residential settlements can sprawl out over large areas – a perfect example is US surburbia. Yet people’s dependence on cars poses a major threat to public health and the environment.

It is estimated that there are more than a billion cars in the world. As well as driving up energy use, contributing to more than 70% of C0₂ emissions in the transport sector and reducing air quality, cars are also responsible for increasing obesity and chronic illnesses and killing more than 1.25m people around the globe every year in traffic accidents.

Cities around the world are taking steps to reduce the dominance of the car, to benefit residents and the environment. Of course, big changes in urban planning and individual behaviour are likely to take decades to accomplish. But while there’s no one plan which can work for every city, there are a few ways that authorities can reduce people’s dependence on cars, and reclaim space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.

1. Introduce car-free zones and charges

Car-free zones and charges are increasingly being adopted in cities around the world. These areas, which deter or restrict car use, can range in size and nature. In some cities, such as Copenhagen and Brussels, cars are entirely banned from parts of the city centre.

Other cities have instituted partial bans: for example, in Madrid, cars not belonging to residents are banned from the heart of the city. The entire city of Ghent, in Belgium, is car-free – but public transport, taxis and other permit holders may be allowed to drive through the city at up to five kilometres per hour. Elsewhere, like in central London, charges are applied to drivers entering during peak hours or using polluting vehicles.

To make these restrictions work, it’s crucial for city authorities to gain public support for them. The 2008 attempt to introduce what would have been the UK’s largest congestion zone in Greater Manchester was rejected in a referendum by 79% of voters on a 53.2% turnout. A number of opposition groups, involving businesses, residents and leaders of councils, mobilised to defeat the plan.

Many did not support the proposals in Manchester because they did not feel adequately consulted. Perhaps experimenting first at a much smaller scale, in the city centre, and gradually expanding to other parts of the city would also help people to accept the proposals.

2. Provide public transport alternatives

Many people living in suburbs or on the outskirts of cities might view restrictions on cars negatively, as a source of inconvenience or even a loss of freedom. An obvious way to address these concerns is to provide people with reliable, flexible and cost-effective public transit.

Adequate investments in public transit today will provide benefits in the long term. For example, evidence shows that there is an overall decreasing trend in car use in many cities across Europe, the US and Australia. A number of factors explain this trend, including the provision of public transit, having more older people who tend to drive less and the rise in fuel prices.

What’s more, young people today – especially young men – are delaying learning to drive and are less likely to own a car, compared to the generation before them. If fewer people are going to drive, then the public transport of the future needs to be affordable and accessible for both young and old.

3. Reshape the city

Significant progress towards reducing car use will be made by addressing underlying factors through urban planning. We need to build high density, mixed-use developments with affordable housing and excellent green spaces. We need to offer people the opportunity to live closer to shops, employment and recreation, thereby promoting “active” travel such as walking and cycling.

There are examples of planned and ongoing urban developments across the globe, including Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and The Great City in China prioritising walking and public transit over cars, as well as experimenting with electric and driverless vehicles. These new developments are aiming to provide basic services within walking distance, create safe spaces for people to walk and provide public transit that uses clean energy.

Cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Malmo and Utrecht are reallocating road space from motorised to non-motorised transport and investing in new cycling infrastructure. It should not be unthinkable to have protected cycle highways connecting suburban communities to their city centres, as has been the case for cars for many decades.

So, there are a number of ways by which cities could significantly reduce car dependence and ultimately become car-free. But such policies must aim to change behaviours, as well as reshape the built environment. Both inner city and suburban residents must be able to access reliable public transport.

Above all, people want to be heard and involved in designing interventions that directly affect them. If people can own the vision and understand the benefits of the car-free city, then nothing will stand in the way of reclaiming the city from the car.


Guest post written by Richard Kingston, Professor of Urban Planning and GISc, University of Manchester and Ransford A. Acheampong, Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities, University of Manchester.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.