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Britain’s Electric Car Revolution, Is It Even Worth It?

Updated: Jun 25, 2022

In November 2020, the UK brought forward its ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to 2030, with some hybrids being allowed into 2035. This announcement comes just a few months after the Johnson administration unveiled their new green ‘industrial revolution’ and 12 months before the UK hosts the COP26 climate conference. The new target of 2030 is one of the most radical electric vehicle policy targets in the world.

While clearly ambitious, this policy is backed by the fact that electric car prices are decreasing across the board in response to major investment and the market share is set to continue increasing. However, the ambitions of the green-minded are riddled with technological, environmental and ethical issues that pose major structural issues to the UK’s, and indeed the world’s, aims at quelling the climate crisis.

It was revealed in November 2020 that the UK & the 17 largest EU economies bought over a million hybrid/electric cars with around half of these being full electric cars. This is a huge increase in sales and has greatly been impacted by EU and UK state action to fine companies that don’t decrease their fleets’ emissions. While the past year’s numbers may predict a positive future for electric cars, the current economic climate - under the strain of Brexit - looks to stunt Britain’s electric shift. Currently, the UK’s future trade arrangement with the EU will result in large import tariffs on cars as Europe seeks to insulate its own industry from outside competition. As it stands, many British-made cars use Japanese and third party made parts which don’t qualify for tariff exemptions under the current ‘locally-made’ rules. This will push up the costs of electric cars for British consumers who buy the vast majority of their cars from Europe, while simultaneously sabotaging sales by British based car firms that export 4/5 units to the EU.

Another disputed issue is the approach governments take towards the move to electric cars. The Volvo chief executive has recently expressed discontent with the general attitude of many governments as ineffective. The UK’s hard ban on petrol and diesel was therefore welcomed by Volvo, believing a new industry can’t be built on subsidies and fines but major legislation. Despite legislation being identified by many as the key factor to change, this poses its own issues. Governments cannot act far out of the interests of those who elected them and so for the foreseeable future if consumers cannot be encouraged to commit to electric cars the operation is under major threat. For example, the lack of changing points has always been an issue of contention. In response to this the Government has announced £500m towards charging infrastructure to increase consumer confidence. While this is a positive and essential step there is no time frame on this investment and even if it’s swift, it’ll still take years for consumer behaviour to be impacted. Following on from this, the pandemic also massively impacts consumer choices. In January 2020 as much as 16% of consumers wanted to buy an all-electric car, yet this figure fell to 4% in November as a result of falling incomes. Price is the most important factor for the majority of UK consumers when it comes to cars, and with electric cars still more expensive it further complicates the route to Johnson's green revolution.

Even if consumers do make the switch, are there any substantial environmental benefits? Likely not. One of the major benefits of electric cars is of course the fact that they produce no greenhouse gases when being used. While in the long run this is undoubtedly better than non-electric cars, during the much more complex and demanding manufacturing process the cars must drive on average 50,000 miles to offset emissions. Most importantly is the production of the batteries which is not only costly but very harmful to the environment. Environmental problems expand to the precious metal procurement of the essential battery materials of cobalt and lithium, both of which are mined arduously. Lithium mining requires huge amounts of water which in the Americas, Australia and Africa can be problematic. Further still, contamination of entire plains and water sources has been known to occur during this process. If the UK can remove itself from the blame for this environmental damage done in electric car supply chains, then it still has to grapple with major ethical issues. Cobalt has come to be known as the blood diamond of the electric car industry, being tied to many cases of child labour and appalling mining conditions. Standing over all of this is the dilemma of how the electricity that powers the car is made. If the UK cannot shift its electricity production to nuclear or renewable sources, then the issue of emissions is simply moved from cars to fossil fuel factories.

The future of the UK’s shift to electric is facing a leviathan of opposition. Even as demand for electric cars rebounds it will only lead to far higher demand for electricity to be produced which in itself faces a marathon before it can call itself legitimately climate-friendly. 2030 is perhaps a naïve target, but it may perhaps inadvertently still be the best target. With such a strong line by the government consumers and producers will be heavily incentivised to invest in electric cars and new cleaner technology in mining and battery production.

The quest for a truly green economy may remain on the horizon, but it’s not yet out of sight.

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