Yesterday we heard the welcome news that the Government intends to end the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles in the UK. Make no mistake, the end of sales of fossil fuel vehicles is a good thing. But the plans have received short shrift from groups concerned about air pollution.
What does the announcement mean for the climate, and for nature, though? The news came hot on the heels of a similar announcement by the French Government only a couple of weeks ago. It also follows recent news that Volvo is planning to stop production of fossil-fuel only cars and that the Government also wants to see a big increase in charging infrastructure.
In a blog last week, my colleague shared her personal experience of buying an electric vehicle. They pointed out that one of the main barriers to this technology is the current diesel and petrol technology which dominates the market. An announcement that petrol and diesel vehicles will no longer be sold certainly sends a signal of market certainty: the future direction of vehicle transport in the UK is electric.
An electric future, not a biofuel one
This target could help to steer us away from the false solution of bad biofuels. Across the EU, including in this country, biofuels made from crops and other materials have been blended into our fuel to meet targets for renewable transport. The UK Government recently consulted on the future of support for biofuels after 2020, and the EU is also currently considering what support or limits there should be on these fuels after 2020.
But we know that many types of biofuel can harm wildlife and be bad for the climate, often even worse than the fossil fuels they replace. For example, the use of palm oil, a growing contributor to Europe’s biofuel mix, is damaging the wildlife-rich rainforests of Indonesia and causing huge releases of greenhouse gases too.
2040: are we nearly there yet?
On the journey to an all-electric vehicle future, 2040 is not the first and best destination for reducing emissions. Globally, if we’re to have a chance of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees by 2050 (as the UK and many other countries have committed to try to do) then some analysis suggests that fossil fuel cars everywhere need to stop being sold by 2035. As Steve Cornelius of WWF pointed out on twitter yesterday, for a developed country like the UK that’s a big emitter per capita, this probably means aiming for something around 2030, a whole ten years sooner than the Government’s intention.
Electric cars: only as green as the power they use
The UK’s power grid has become a lot cleaner in recent years, in part thanks to the low-hanging fruit of significant declines in coal use. But the Committee on Climate Change has made it clear that new policies are needed in order for there to be certainty for renewable energy after 2020. Electric cars are only as good at reducing emissions as the energy they are charged with. So, decarbonising the UK’s power grid and joining this up with an electric vehicle strategy must be priorities for the forthcoming Clean Growth Plan and Industrial Strategy.
Lots of articles in recent days have stirred up fear about the extra strain such a surge in electric car use could put on the UK’s power grid. But a useful Carbon Brief article debunks many of these claims, pointing out that shared vehicles and smart charging can seriously mitigate the impact. National Grid, who are responsible for balancing our whole energy system and are constantly working to adapt the power grid to be fit for the future, also consider that a scenario where all cars are plug-in electric vehicles by 2050 (their 2 degrees scenario) is achievable. It is true that if the UK stuck its heels in and refused to adapt the grid and our interactions with it then electric cars would pose a challenge. However, with positive announcements this week from Government and Ofgem on measures to help the UK upgrade to a smarter and more flexible future energy system, it’s clear action is getting underway to break down the barriers to an electric future.
This news certainly sets the UK’s transport sector on a good course, but more urgency is needed if we really want to get to grips with air pollution and carbon emissions.. Now we need to see the fine-grain policy detail, such as completely phasing out land-based biofuels by 2030 at the latest, avoiding their impacts and creating space for electric vehicles to lead the way.
I’m working with the Met Office on new climate change projections for the UK, due next spring. A version of this post appeared in the project team’s newsletter.
Nature – the animals and plants which provide the setting and powerhouse for our own lives - is beset by a range of impacts from climate change. A climate signal has been widespread across nature in the UK for some 30 years now, and I work to develop the strategies and actions that will enable our natural world to cope with climate change.
The RSPB’s scientists and ecologists use the UKCP09 projections in computer modelling for both individual species and our nature reserves. Alongside this, I’m interested in qualitative approaches for assessing climate change impacts for a much wider range of audiences.
One such audience is the partnerships that come together to improve conditions for nature across whole landscapes – the RSPB’s Futurescapes programme. Our workshops bring people together, with interested parties as diverse as farmers, foresters, water and coastal managers, the Ministry of Defence, representatives from heritage, tourist and recreational interests from each Futurescape project to work alongside nature conservation staff. They spend the day learning about the future climate of the area, assessing direct and indirect impacts and discussing adaptation measures for the priority impacts they’ve identified.
Gaining an understanding about the local future climate is crucial to gaining a successful outcome from these workshops. We look at the likely range of future climate conditions, using the 10% and 90% probability levels for changes in temperature and precipitation from the UKCP09 projections. And we frame the future in terms of 2°C and 4°C average global temperature increases, real-world situations that link to climate mitigation ambitions. The 2°C world provides a pertinent planning timescale, 20 to 25 years, and is the main focus for the workshop. The 4°C world indicates a more distant future state that can help to inform relevant action now and highlight the need to avoid this world.
Two interesting things have emerged from these workshops. First, people are often shocked when they discover the extent to which climate is expected to change in their area, and in a timeframe that’s highly relevant to their lives. And second, we need to make climate projections more accessible to a much wider range of people.
The workshop discussions that follow from this qualitative use of the UKCP09 projections, guided by a clear sequence of logical questions, have been universally positive, without exception. It’s been encouraging to see how the different interests in each landscape area seek ways to adapt together, from sharing a common understanding of the climate problem to gaining insights into its impacts on the various aspects that combine to form a living, working landscape. As such, our climate workshops have helped build the landscape partnership itself and produce clear adaptation strategies for incorporating into the management plans of the RSPB’s Futurescapes.
So what’s useful from this for new climate projections? It’s helped me become fervently aware that, alongside the requirements of the scientific community, we need to present climate change in the UK in ways that can be easily picked up in everyday life. There’s a significant and widespread knowledge gap about climate change, across professional, business and community audiences, which we must fix. Achieving this will contribute to much more effective adaptation, taken in advance of serious impacts rather than as a response to them. And we’ll also help to win support for the massive shift in our energy generation and use that’s required to contain climate change to levels that will allow healthy natural environments and human societies to persist.
By Naomi Goody (Sustainable Development Adminstrator) and Matt Goody
With additional research by James Stephenson (work experience student) and Matt Williams (Climate Change Policy Officer).
There’s nothing quite like feeling ahead of the curve, which is how we felt a few weeks ago when we bought an electric car. This was followed by a string of announcements about the bright future and new support for electric vehicles:
Having recently moved house we realised that we would need a second car in order to manage both of our commutes to work, which had now almost doubled! So an electric car seemed like a sensible choice: it will benefit the environment and our budget. Transport makes up around a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and the RSPB has serious concerns about the risks of many types of biofuels. Electric cars can offer an environmentally sound way to reduce emissions. Our experience of driving one over the past few weeks has proved this to be true.
An electric car means more money in our pockets
The major appeal to getting an electric car, in our case a Nissan Leaf, was Matt’s daily commute; while not excessively long by any means it was the longest of both journeys and still enough to have a noticeable impact on our bank balance. Our ten year old car, that he would otherwise be driving, averages about 38mpg which at the current cost of fuel works out at about 14p per mile. This in itself isn't all that bad, but when you consider the Leaf costs 2p per mile when charged overnight it's a serious difference. Over the course of a year his commute (around 12,000 miles) used to cost £1680 in fuel but will only cost £275 in the leaf. Throw in the additional £135 save in vehicle excise tax and the Leaf works out £1540 cheaper.
Electric vehicles and a low-carbon energy system will help the climate
Of course, alongside the financial saving, the electric car doesn’t generate any emissions when it’s being drive, so it’s theoretically much better for the climate. To really make the most difference though, as we have done, you need to switch to a green energy supplier that supports the deployment of renewable energy. In order to ensure that a nationwide switch to electric vehicles helps the climate the UK Government needs to support a transition to a low-carbon national energy system. For this to happen the Government’s forthcoming Clean Growth Plan and Industrial Strategy need to create certainty for the renewable energy sector beyond 2020 through policy and clarity on available subsidies.
If you're interested in going electric for environmental reasons then it's a great choice, although definitely consider looking at where your energy comes from to minimise your overall carbon footprint. We certainly enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling we get from having made a decision which allows us in our own small way to contribute to a greener future.
Supporting the arrival of an electric vehicle future
But for others to enjoy the same feeling, electric vehicles need more support. It's up to Government and businesses, not just consumers like us, to make this shift happen There have been three major barriers to electric vehicles to date: the market dominance of petrol and diesel cars, the emissions associated with the electricity used to charge them, and the availability of charging points.
Measures to support a rapid and significant shift to low-carbon energy, in harmony with nature, will ensure that the electricity that powers these vehicles is truly helping the climate without harming wildlife. At present the energy system relies in large part on fossil fuels, meaning that these cars still cause greenhouse gas emissions, just indirectly. And to make them practical for large proportions of the population a roll-out of infrastructure will be needed to make sure they can be charged both at home and on the road. Policies that incentivise people to choose electric vehicles over petrol and diesel cars that are bad for the climate and for people’s health, will kick-start the market too and give this emerging technology the leg-up it needs.
Electric cars are the future of motoring. In order for that future to arrive we need more of the same leadership we’ve seen from politicians and companies in recent weeks.