Record growth of EV registrations tempered by rise in CO2 emissions from tailpipes and cuts to EV car grants
The UK government must deliver new policies to support the take-up of low and zero emissions cars if its is to keep pace with the rollout of greener cars across the EU, Britain's motoring industry warned today.
The latest figures for new car registrations, released by industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT), reveal record registrations of hybrid, electric, and hydrogen cars in the UK last year, with year-on-year growth topping 20 per cent.
Petrol electric hybrids remained the most popular choice for drivers, enjoying 21.3 per cent growth in 2018 with more than 81,000 new cars registered. But plug-in hybrids also logged a good year, with registrations up almost 25 per cent in 2018. And pure electric vehicles continued to enjoy solid growth, with sales up 13.8 per cent year-on-year.
However, behind the encouraging headline numbers SMMT was quick to note that with just 15,474 pure electric vehicles registered, the sector still makes up only 0.7 per cent of the overall market - streets behind Norway where figures last week suggested nearly a third of new vehicles were electric last year. More broadly, growing demand for alternative fuelled vehicles is failing to offset the impact on average emissions of falling demand for diesel vehicles, meaning that average emissions for new vehicles rose last year for the second year in succession.
Fears are mounting that a pan-industry slowdown could undermine efforts to accelerate the transition to cleaner vehicles. Annual registrations for all car types fell for the second year running in 2018, by 6.8 per cent to just over 2.3 million. The fall is largely explained by the ongoing collapse in diesel sales - down 29 per cent in 2018 - according to SMMT, as car buyers shy away from the technology in the wake of the 'dieselgate' scandal and amid local authority crackdowns city centre particulate pollution.
Only today London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a major new awareness campaign to urge motorists to check if their vehicles meet the tough new standards of the capital's incoming Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). From April vehicles that fail the stringent emissions standards will be forced to pay an extra £12.50 per car or van, or £100 per bus, coach or lorry, on top of the city's existing congestion charge to enter central London under the scheme.
Wider market uncertainty over Brexit and changes to regulations have also dented consumer and business confidence, SMMT added. Registrations in the fleet sector were down 7.3 per cent in 2018, while smaller business operators posted a 5.6 per cent decline in new car registrations.
It all adds up to paint a worrying picture for the UK car industry, and while some environmental campaigners maintain that falling sales is an encouraging trend green car advocates fear plans to cut the carbon impact of transport could be hampered by weak market sentiment. The shift away from diesel may have sparked record growth in the electric and hybrid sector, but it has also encouraged more people to switch to petrol engines or hold on to their old cars for longer, SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes warned. That has led to an increase in tailpipe emissions for the second year running according to the SMMT, with its data revealing the UK new car fleet average CO2 rose by 2.9 per cent to 124.5g/km in 2018. "The move away from diesel is having a significant impact," SMMT concluded.
Nor is the outlook for low-carbon cars - ostensibly the only part of the market delivering strong growth - looking entirely rosy. Plug-in hybrids may have posted growth of almost 30 per cent in the first 10 months of 2018, but cuts to government grants for plug-in car buyers announced in October poured cold water over the market during the tail end of the year. Growth in sales slipped from buoyant double digits to just 3.1 per cent in November and 8.7 per cent in December. And despite registrations of pure EV's recording 13.8 per cent growth across the year, they still only make up just a fraction of the UK market.
The SMMT warned the UK was now behind the EU average for EV adoption. Data from the ACEA - the European Automobile Manufacturers Association - suggests hybrids and pure electric car sales rose more than 40 per cent across the EU during the first three quarters of 2018.
Announcing the subsidy cuts in October the government justified the cuts to the Plug-In Car grant, which slashed grants by £1,000 per car, by claiming the falling cost of electric cars means consumers need less support when purchasing.
But the rapid decline in EV sales following the move suggests the government may have moved too early, and SMMT's Mike Hawes today called on Ministers to reconsider their approach. "The industry is facing ever-tougher environmental targets against a backdrop of political and economic uncertainty that is weakening demand so these figures should act as a wake-up call for policy makers," he said in a statement. "Supportive, not punitive measures are needed to grow sales, because replacing older cars with new technologies, whether diesel, petrol, hybrid or plug-in, is good for the environment, the consumer, the industry and the exchequer."
A Department for Transport spokesperson insisted the UK is a major European player in ultra-low emission vehicles. "We have made real progress in the ultra-low emission vehicle sector, with vehicle numbers up almost 50 per cent since 2016 to record levels," the department said in response to today's figures. "The government has invested £1.5bn in support for zero-emission vehicles, and the UK has one of the largest markets for ultra-low emission cars in Europe."
Ministers could also point to the low cost electric cars starting to hit markets around the world - Chinese manufacturer Great Wall Motors recently unveiled the Ora R1, which with a starting price of $8,680 is by far the cheapest EV on the market currently, even if it is only on sale in China at the moment.
Equally, the ongoing roll out of public charging points should go some way towards convincing British consumers choosing an electric vehicle is not a risky or radical option. Swedish energy giant Vattenfall today announced plans to install 12 new public charging points in Canterbury after winning a tender from the city council. Power supplied to the charging points will be indirectly sourced from Vattenfall's British wind farms, the firm said, via the use of renewable energy certificates. The tender is part of city officials' efforts to encourage zero emission driving in the city centre, in a bid to improve the region's air quality.
But whether falling EV costs or the steady roll out of new public charging points will be enough to offset the cuts to the Plug-In Car grant, or reassure small businesses and fleet operators to take the plunge on new vehicle purchases, in the immediate future remains questionable. Europe may be entering the fast lane for greener motoring, but with challenging headwinds, plus Brexit looming, fears are growing that the UK is struggling to keep up.
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