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If electric vehicles are going to be realistic, we need to be too

By - World Infrastructure Journal

If electric vehicles are going to be realistic, we need to be too

As outlined in the recently unveiled transport decarbonisation plan, the sale of diesel and petrol heavy goods vehicles will be banned by 2040. Originally the plan had been to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, however as it has become increasingly apparent that the infrastructural support to do so does not exist (and a miraculous technological breakthrough is not coming any time soon) policymakers have scaled back their ambitions. However, though the goals may now be less far-fetched, the lack of infrastructural support means they are still simply not realistic.


Scaling back ambitions

The transport decarbonisation plan, which was revealed this week after a series of delays, lays out several measures which would cut carbon emissions in the transport sector. Included are not only plans to ban the sale of certain vehicles, but also to modernise and ‘green’ the aviation industry, as well as impose stricter standards on privately owned electric vehicle (EV) charging ports. This cadre of announcements, which is to be followed shortly by the rail environment policy statement, “marks a major leap forward in delivering ambitions to decarbonise transport,” according to Rt. Hon. Grant Shapps and will supposedly “create economic growth, new industries and jobs and help us Build Back Better and Greener. ”

However, it must be remembered that these announcements constitute a significantly watered-down version of what was already something of a compromise. The government’s original goal of banning the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 may not have been an explicit agreement between government and industry, however the reaction of UK manufacturers to the announcement of the original ban would indicate that this was not a massive shock. Bentley Chairman Adrian Hallmark went as far as to say his company welcomed the clarity and “will be ready for the end of sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030,” while even less enthusiastic respondents like Steve Norman of Vauxhall said that while the deadline was “a little bit tighter than we were expecting” plans were still “in place to meet that goal. ”

In other words, the reasons for the revision of the government’s original goals wasn’t a lack of co-operation or even willingness on behalf of private industry. Rather, the reason that the 2030 deadline has been pushed back a decade is because the UK’s infrastructure isn’t prepared to support such a change – even though the necessity of such a shift has been evident for years.


An urgent need for action

Perhaps the clearest evidence of this lack of planning is the scale of investment put forward by the government. While the £2.8 billion being pledged towards EV technology may seem like quite a bit of money, it is dwarfed by the £37 billion that the government receives annually in revenue from carbon taxes such as fuel levies and vehicle excise duty. While there are a number of other ongoing programs that similarly look to stoke innovation in industries such as aviation and shipping, they too are not receiving the funding necessary to instigate the technological revolutions they are being asked to. The Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure (ZEFI) competition, for example, which hopes to stimulate the development of the infrastructure required to support electric and hydrogen aircraft, has only seen an investment totalling £3 million.

Even if the sums were significantly larger, however, the pursuit of a technological breakthrough is ultimately frivolous given the immediacy of the climate crisis. As it stands, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has already warned that the UK government is acting “too slow” and will fall short of the Net-Zero 2050 targets by a “huge margin” unless there is a significant shift in their approach to addressing climate change. In a recently released report, the CCC identified that out of 21 “key decarbonisation areas,” only 4 are being approached with sufficient ambition and only 2 are being addressed with appropriate policies. Even more concerning, of the 61 “adaptation priority areas” (i.e. food supply, carbon stores, etc.) that have been identified, 34 require significant attention according to the CCC.

Risks and opportunities grouped by UK-wide urgency score, with red indicating the highest level of urgency. Source: CCC (2021).

As the report outlines, what is really needed to reach the Net-Zero 2050 targets and poise the UK to deal with climate change is ambitious policy-making that realistically assesses the status quo and sensibly, but ambitiously, plans to change it. This means making ambitious policy moves that work in tandem with one another – it is no use, for instance, to issue a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate unless there is adequate support in both EV and public transport infrastructure to support it. However, as CCC Chief Executive Chris Stark, has pointed out, there is “a general feeling that the government is quite keen to present itself as more ambitious, keen to sign up to ambitious long-term targets as a platform internationally, but less keen to deliver against those things with difficult policy decisions. ”

As such, banning the sale of smaller trucks from 2035, and larger ones weighing more than 26 tonnes from 2040, “or earlier if a faster transition seems feasible,” does not seem to reflect an adequate level of ambition. That said, it must be noted that EV roll-out is one of the only policy areas where the government is not remarkably behind the CCC’s “balanced net-zero pathway. ” In other areas, such as aviation demand management and industrial decarbonisation, the goals set out by the government only promise emissions reductions that are far less than what the CCC recommends.


Misplaced priorities

The inaction of the government can be, at least in part, explained by a failure to grasp the severity of the situation and a dearth of vision when it comes to policy. However, more damaging than a lack of imagination has been the lack of support for such projects. Without being able to easily scale up or down certain aspects of industry to accommodate shifting patterns of use, the UK government has found itself turning time and time again to programmes that throw money at innovation in the hopes of discovering something game-changing.

Barring a miracle breakthrough, aviation will not be a carbon-neutral form of transport anytime soon and low-occupancy vehicles will be consistently and significantly more costly to run than higher occupancy vehicles (such as trains and buses). These are facts that must be acknowledged and accounted for in planning. The money that is currently being spent on things such as the ZEFI competition would be better used growing rail and public transportation, and thusly encouraging passengers and freight away from environmentally-costly forms of travel.

While the use of EVs can still have a hugely positive impact on lowering emissions, they too lack the infrastructural support to make the most of their potential. Though they are often touted as the future of sustainable transport, the ‘greenness’ of EVs is ultimately down to the grid that supplies them. In other words, if EVs were to replace all cars and trucks overnight it would still not constitute a significant shift away from fossil fuels, as the national grid would still be reliant on non-renewables. Though, in 2019 (for the first time ever) renewable energies provided a greater share of the UK’s total usage than any other source, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) claims that at least half of Britain’s energy will have to come from renewable sources by 2030 should Britain hope to reach its Net-Zero targets – especially given the electricity demands of EVs.


The sun sets on Dungeness B. Source: Shutterstock (2021)

The neglect of nuclear

There is, however, a startling lack of movement regarding the creation of new renewable energy infrastructure. There has been investment in wind and solar (January of this year saw subsidies for solar and onshore wind farms double) but these projects are simply not scalable for a country that ranks 12th in the world in energy consumption. Hydropower and nuclear are, as such, the solutions. Yet, “despite an estimated 2.4 GW of viable hydropower potential in the UK, hydropower expansion is likely to be limited to small-scale applications (up to 5 MW),” and there continues to be an air of indecision around nuclear.

Currently, there is an attempt to bring forward legislation that would help finance a new nuclear power station in Sizewell, East Suffolk that would produce 3.2 gigawatts (or enough to power 6 million households). Given that the 1.1 gigawatt-producing Dungeness B station was taken offline just last month (7 years ahead of schedule), and 6 of the remaining 7 currently operating plants in the UK are due to shut down this decade, the creation of Sizewell C would seem to be a no-brainer.

However, there have been consistent issues securing funding for the project, and as a result the future of the only planned replacement for the UK’s disappearing nuclear infrastructure is dependent on the acceptance of the use of a regulated asset base (RAB) model to secure the funding. The use of an RAB model, which is not uncommon across infrastructure, essentially means that consumers pay for a service before it is built through their existing bills – a strategy that has a proven track record of attracting risk averse investors to projects. This should be a fairly straight-forward proposition, however given the UK government's lukewarm commitment towards nuclear projects in the past, it is entirely understandable why some consumers may harbour doubts.

The merits of nuclear are clear – in the last 50 years it has reduced global CO2 emissions by 60 gigatonnes (the equivalent of about 2 years of energy usage) and already is currently responsible for over 10 per cent of the global energy supply. As chairman of New Nuclear Watch Europe Tim Yeo put it, nuclear is “the most efficient way” to decarbonise grids. Yet, while the UKhas made great strides in decarbonising its power sector in recent years,”  Simon Virley, lead energy partner at KPMG UK warns that “the forthcoming retirements of old nuclear stations could halt that progress, or even send it into reverse. ” As Graeme Cooper, head of future markets at National Grid, has pointed out, though “there might be uncertainty as to which technology is best for clean HGVs, there are… actions that can be taken now, such as investing in energy infrastructure ahead of need. ”

If funding is not secured for Sizewell C, it will join the recently axed Wylfa Newydd scheme as yet another renewable energy project that failed due to a lack of interest from policymakers. While there is still a pressing need to act proactively through policy to curb consumer habits in order to drive down usage of high-emissions transport options, the need for an expanded renewables capacity may be even more pressing – especially if Transport Secretary Grant Shapps continues to encourage members of the public to simply, do “the same things differently. ”


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