Watchdog warns 'lack of clarity' and 'missed opportunities' mean new strategy does not go far enough in tackling rising vehicle emissions - and it is not alone in its criticism
The government has already taken a bit of a shellacking over this week's long-awaited Road to Zero strategy for decarbonising road transport, with business groups, campaigners, and think tanks all lining up to say it should have set a more ambitious target for phasing out petrol and diesel cars. But yesterday saw perhaps the most pointed and significant criticism yet, as the government's official watchdog the Committee on Climate Change accused Ministers of squandering the opportunity to deliver a sufficiently ambitious strategy.
The government published the new strategy on Monday, setting out plans to reform building regulations to accelerate the roll out of electric vehicle charge points, invest in new charging infrastructure, and ban the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars from 2040.
The support for charging infrastructure was broadly welcomed, but trade body Energy UK and a number green NGOs accused the government of failing to match the ambition of other countries that have set much earlier phase out dates for new petrol and diesel cars.
Writing on BusinessGreen, Erik Fairbairn, CEO at charge point specialist POD Point, sums up the views of many: "As a country, we can be leaders in zero emission transport, but we need to challenge ourselves. This target is way too weak - the UK can do better. All new cars electric by 2030 is the target we need to ensure that the UK leads on this. After all, countries including India, Ireland, Norway and the Netherlands are already aiming for this date."
Yesterday the CCC echoed that criticism and added to it, issuing a briefing note that accused the Department for Transport of "falling short of expectations" and potentially risking the UK's climate targets at a time when emissions from transport are rising.
The short paper from the CCC - which will be followed by an in-depth analysis in the coming months - commended the new strategy for confirming the current incentive scheme for ultra low emission vehicles will remain in place until at least 2020, committing to delivering new charging infrastructure, and highlighting the benefits in terms of air quality and noise pollution that will result from a switch to electric vehicles (EVs).
In addition it welcomed the introduction of a new voluntary target to cut emissions from HGVs 15 per cent by 2025, although it noted that "this should be closely monitored, with an option to introduce tougher measures if progress is off track".
However, it also argued the Road to Zero strategy "falls short in a number of areas".
Most notably, it accused the government of providing a "lack of clarity over the stated aim to end the sale of conventional cars and vans in 2040".
It said the failure to clearly define what is meant by conventional vehicles left open the possibility of sales of conventional hybrids and very short range plug-in hybrids in 2040 and following years. Fears the ban would allow hybrid cars that continue to emit significant levels of carbon dioxide to be sold beyond 2040 were further fuelled by a pointed statement from DfT suggesting sales of hybrids would not be banned.
But the CCC warned failing to eventually phase out such vehicles is "inconsistent with the UK's climate change commitments". "To meet the government's stated goal of every car and van being zero emission in 2050, only pure battery electric vehicles and long range plug in hybrids can be sold after 2035, enabling the majority of journeys to be completed in electric mode," the CCC said.
DfT has said it will review long term targets for EVs in 2025, but the CCC said that while a formal review was welcome waiting until 2025 was "much too late to consider interventions if insufficient progress is being made".
The watchdog also criticised the government for failing to take any steps to address the fast-growing market for higher emitting vehicles, such as SUVs, which is currently more than cancelling out the emissions savings that have resulted from increased demand for EVs and plug-in hybrids. The CCC said growing demand for higher emitting models had "potentially serious implications for meeting the UK's carbon budgets" that DfT had failed to address.
In addition, it said the new strategy failed to incentivise the purchase of electric and hybrid vans, despite the fact new models with longer electric range are well suited to the needs of urban van drivers and emissions from vans are growing faster than those from any other form of transport.
And it highlighted how the strategy failed to address Brexit-related uncertainties that could undermine efforts to decarbonise road transport.
The government's Chequers Plan has committed to retaining EU standards on goods and maintaining environmental standards at current levels or improving them post-Brexit, which suggests EU vehicle emissions rules will be honoured.
But the CCC warned that if the UK were to leave the EU framework for car, van and HGV emissions standards it would risk becoming a "respository for the EU's most polluting vehicles".
"The current car and van EU framework expires in 2020/1, and the UK will need to act swiftly to introduce a new set of regulations to avoid becoming a respository for the EU's most polluting vehicles," the CCC said. "Clarity is needed about whether the UK will be part of these EU standards long-term."
CCC chair Lord Deben said the strategy amounted to a "missed opportunity" that could put UK carbon targets at risk.
"Road to Zero falls short of our expectations," he said in a statement. "The Committee had hoped for a ground-breaking Strategy to tackle emissions from transport now the most polluting sector of the UK economy. Road to Zero has not risen to the task. We commend the ambition to ramp up the number of electric vehicles on our roads by 2030, and the new charging infrastructure in homes and streets, but there are plenty of missed opportunities too."
He warned that simply relying on the private sector to effect the shift to zero emission vehicles by 2040 was a "risky" strategy. "We had hoped for greater clarity on government actions to back this up and to ensure plug-in hybrids sold in the UK travel further in electric mode on a single charge," he added.
The Department for Transport defended its approach, insisting it was taking steps to enable an industry and consumer-led transition to zero emission vehicles.
"The move to zero emission vehicles is the biggest technology advancement to hit UK roads since the invention of the combustion engine, a DfT spokesperson said. "The Road to Zero Strategy sets out a clear path for the country to be a world leader in the clean transport revolution. We believe we have identified the right balance between our environmental ambitions and deliverability, giving consumers time to transition and pushing industry to work at pace."
The government insists it is pursuing a strategy that strikes the right balance between feasibility and ambition, and that it will result in all new cars and vans being "effectively zero carbon" by 2040. But the reality is that a target that is 22 years hence is not as ambitious as that being pursued by other countries and, more importantly, hybrid cars are not effectively zero carbon, especially if they lack significant plug-in capabilities and zero emission range. They are an important step in the right direction, but they emit significant quantities of carbon, contribute to air pollution and, as the CCC shows, their long term use is not compatible with the UK's carbon targets.
The government will no doubt protest that it cannot risk anything that might compromise demand for new cars, but pressure on the government to beef up its newly-minted green transport strategy is already growing.
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