Banning hybrid cars is a good start, but we must do more if we're serious about cutting emissions

The narrative of the “transition” technology here is pervasive, but often just slows down much needed transformation – we’re seeing a dash for hybrids that is costly for consumers and slows down efforts to reduce pollution

James Beard
Sunday 06 May 2018 16:34 BST
Britain 'to ban all petrol and diesel vehicle sales by 2040'

Leaked reports yesterday appeared to suggest that the government is considering including some hybrid cars in a sale ban to be enforced by 2040, much to the misguided anger of Prius owners and the auto industry.

In fact this suggestion doesn’t go far enough, and to clear our air, meet our international responsibilities and seize the economic benefits of clean vehicles, we need to end petrol and diesel vehicle sales, including hybrids, way before 2040.

This is not just a business or industry issue. Climate change, driven by our carbon emissions, is one of the biggest threats to nature. If we’re going to meet our Paris climate commitments, the UK will need to be a “zero carbon” economy by no later than 2050, as Conservative MP Claire Perry said in Parliament last week. That means maxing out the cheapest low-carbon technologies (like fully electric vehicles), with no space left for half measures like hybrids.

The narrative of the “transition” technology here is pervasive, but often just slows down much needed transformation. The calls for a dash for gas as coal plants close is a classic example, because a mix of renewables and flexible technologies is far cheaper than building new gas plants to run inefficiently. We’re seeing the same thing in transport: a dash for hybrids that is actually costly for consumers and slows down efforts to protect people and nature from pollution.

Going full electric is often presented as a leap too far, and making baby steps into hybrids seems the sensible way forward. But ending petrol and diesel vehicle sales in 2030, including hybrids, makes more sense for motorists and the environment for two reasons.

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Firstly, 100 per cent electric vehicles are more convenient than conventional cars. You cannot fill up conventional cars while you’re tucked up in bed, but you can charge an electric one.

Electricity is also cheaper than fuel, making 100 per cent electric vehicles competitive with conventional cars for many drivers already. This will be the norm by the mid-2020s, and most fully electric vehicles will even be cheaper to buy than normal cars well before 2030.

Conventional hybrids run on fuel and use it to charge a battery that enables a limited amount of electric driving. But because you can’t plug in, you don’t get the benefit of filling up at your leisure with cheap mains electricity. You still have to drive to a petrol station and pay more for the privilege.

Plug-in hybrids, on the other hand, run on both fuel and mains electricity. In electric mode, the carbon and cost savings add up. But non-electric mode can obliterate these savings. Plug-in hybrids are big, heavy cars, so running the engine burns more fuel per mile than a lighter option. They only make sense if you minimise engine use, like extended-range electric vehicles, which only use the engine as back-up when the battery runs out.

So the question of whether hybrids should or should not still be in showrooms in 2040 is a total red herring. The real debate is how fast we get to zero emission transport. Automakers that embrace the transition will survive and thrive, hoovering up market share from those who don’t adapt, and won’t survive.

Ending petrol and diesel vehicle sales in 2030, including hybrids, makes sense for motorists and the environment. Accounting for almost half of European demand, the UK could better attract investment in electric vehicle production. By 2030 we could have 100,000 jobs in manufacturing, making up to 1m electric cars per year. Exhaust pollution will be cut 30 per cent, while the gap to our 2030 carbon targets will be more than halved.

The prime minister wants to “cement the UK’s position as a world leader in the low emission and electric vehicle industry” at her Zero Emission Vehicle Summit in the autumn. A more ambitious trajectory to full electrification of new vehicles by 2030 is the best way to do that, supported by an accelerated roll-out of charging infrastructure and strong incentives to kickstart the market.

James Beard is a climate and transport specialist at WWF

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