The £40bn electric car shocker: Yes, they promise us a greener future… but as ROSS CLARK explains, a rushed deadline and swingeing new taxes to pay for them would be a disaster
When the technology is ready — I mean properly tried and tested — I won’t need much persuading to dump my old diesel Citroen estate for an electric car.
It won’t upset my sense of manhood to swap a throaty roar for a gentle whir.
Like most people, I would love it if our towns and cities could be fume-free and we could stop pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
But will we really be ready to do away with all new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 — and hybrids by 2035? Those are the dates Boris Johnson is expected to announce this week for the big ‘switchover’ as part of his ten-point plan for achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
How easy it is for politicians to set targets they know they will, in all likelihood, not be around to have to enforce. Pictured: Chancellor Rishi Sunak visits The Royal Docks in London
It is all very admirable and, yes, it is the policy the Government should be pursuing. But how easy it is for politicians to set targets they know they will, in all likelihood, not be around to have to enforce.
And this target threatens to become a hostage to fortune for Johnson’s successors.
Within a decade, electric cars may well make perfect sense for all motorists, as a truly green option. But that is a long way from being the case now.
We cannot just assume technology will ride to the rescue on schedule. And what about alternatives to electric cars, such as those using hydrogen fuel cells? Is the UK sufficiently invested in research into other options?
We have been here before. When I bought my diesel car more than ten years ago, it was supposed to be the ‘green’ option — a purchase officially encouraged with tax breaks.
Within a decade, electric cars may well make perfect sense for all motorists, as a truly green option. Pictured: Smart electric car charging in London
Sure enough, diesels spew out fewer carbon emissions, mile for mile, than petrol cars.
But as the Government realised too late, when half the cars on the road are diesel, they also create a huge pollution problem through emission of nitrogen oxides, which are associated with short-term health effects such as asthma and long-term effects including cancer.
There are likewise wrinkles that need ironing out before we should go fully electric.
In practical terms, electric cars are not an easy switch. There are two factors that stop me, like many, from buying one today: the high cost and the limited distance you can travel between recharges.
Just about the cheapest electric car on the market is the Nissan Leaf, which costs from £26,845 new — and that’s after a £3,000 subsidy from the Government. That is nearly twice the price of a petrol or diesel Nissan Micra.
Sure enough, diesels spew out fewer carbon emissions, mile for mile, than petrol cars. Pictured: Cars queue at the M6 motorway toll at Weeford Park, West Midlands
True, electric cars are supposed to be cheaper to run. But their proponents tend to forget that not everyone has a large capital sum to splash on the initial purchase, or the income to support hefty monthly repayments.
To fully charge a Nissan Leaf costs about £7.50 — or half that sum if you use off-peak electricity. If it carries me the full 168 miles per charge claimed by the company, that would work out at about 4.4p per mile (or just over 2p per mile if the car was charged at night).
The tank on my Citroen diesel costs about £80 to fill and will carry me 800 miles, which works out at about 10p per mile.
But a large part of the reason why electric cars are cheaper to run is that their owners don’t pay road tax or fuel duty. Yet the loss of those sources of revenue in the post-petrol and diesel world of 2030 is threatening to punch a £40 billion hole in public finances — which is why, as reported yesterday, the Government is looking into charging motorists for using Britain’s roads.
But a large part of the reason why electric cars are cheaper to run is that their owners don’t pay road tax or fuel duty (stock image)
Eventually, electric cars will cost as much in tax as petrol and diesel cars.
And while the price of a new electric vehicle may come down in future, there are no guarantees. Electric car batteries require rare earth metals, such as cobalt, which are expensive — and environmentally damaging — to mine.
As the electric vehicle industry grows and demand outstrips supply, prices for rare metals are set to soar. Some manufacturers have succeeded in reducing their use of such metals, but they are far from cutting them out entirely.
There is also the challenge of installing enough charging points for every electric car. According to an analysis by Capital Economics, the overall cost of installing the hundreds of thousands of public and private charging points needed (assuming every home with off-road parking has one) will be £45.5 billion.
There is also the challenge of installing enough charging points for every electric car (stock picture)
(As for charging at home, many councils decree that owners will be deemed fully liable if someone trips over charging cables that are obstructing a public walkway, even if that is where the council has put the charging point.)
But if I did find the money to buy a brand new Leaf, what happens when I want to drive to Scotland, as I do several times a year? It is 440 miles door to door and takes me — with stops — ten hours, often on one tank of diesel.
A Nissan Leaf’s top range of 168 miles falls to 99 miles when there are passengers, luggage and it is being driven at motorway speeds.
What’s more, it takes seven-and-a-half hours to fully recharge the car. If I could find a rapid charger — and in many parts of the country, that is a big ‘if’ — I could gain myself enough extra charge to cover 60 motorway miles, but even that would take an hour.
It would take me at least two, maybe three, days to drive to Scotland. No thanks.
We must hope battery technology improves before 2030 to allow longer journeys but, again, we can’t assume it.
To top it all, there are questions about how ‘green’ electric cars are anyway.
We must hope battery technology improves before 2030 to allow longer journeys but, again, we can’t assume it (stock image)
They may not spew out toxic fumes but that is very different from being zero-carbon.
An electric vehicle is only as ‘green’ as the electricity used to charge it. One day, perhaps, all electricity will be clean but that is not the case currently. According to government figures, just 33 per cent of electricity used in Britain in 2018 came from ‘renewable sources’ — and most of that involved burning wood pellets and municipal waste, which some have claimed is even dirtier than burning coal.
Wind, wave, solar and hydro — what most people think of as ‘renewable energy’ — accounted for only 10.8 per cent of electricity used in 2018.
Of course, if we all switch to electric cars, generating capacity will need to increase — which could mean relying even more on gas power stations.
Manufacturing electric cars also creates far more carbon emissions than making petrol or diesel ones. So even if they are powered by ‘green’ electricity, you will have to drive thousands of miles before you actually save any carbon.
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, a typical electric car bought in Britain today will reduce lifetime carbon emissions by 30 per cent. But that is far from being zero-carbon.
Finally, there is an ethical problem. More than half the world’s cobalt — essential for making electric cars — comes from one unstable African country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Electric car enthusiasts love lecturing us on the eco-friendliness of their vehicles (stock image)
Much of it is mined by ‘informal’ workers, many of them children. In one incident in June last year, 43 workers died when a pit collapsed.
Electric car enthusiasts love lecturing us on the eco-friendliness of their vehicles. That a child may be working in horrific conditions at the end of the supply chain is something they tend to talk about less.
Yes, we need to switch to clean transport. And maybe we will all be driving electric cars by 2030 — although equally, we could find the future belongs to hydrogen fuel cells, which are being tried in countries including Japan and Canada.
The PM’s announcement of a complete ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 is premature and potentially very damaging to the economy. As he prepares to ‘reset’ his government, he needs to rethink this policy.
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