RAC Foundation says transition to electric cars must be rapid or other measures needed to meet climate goals

Tue 28 February 2023 View all news

A new report from the RAC Foundation asks if the large reduction in total carbon emissions from cars needed to meet the UK's climate change goals can be met solely through the transition to battery electrification or if other measures are needed. 

It concludes that measures to encourage a reduction in car mileage would make the challenge of reaching the targets significantly easier.

The Climate Change Committee’s 'Balanced Net Zero Pathway' which plots a course to Net Zero that’s compliant with its Sixth Carbon Budget (2033-2037) requires annual CO2 emissions from cars to fall from about 57 million tonnes in 2021 to around 34 million tonnes by 2030 - a reduction of 40%.

Modelling by the RAC Foundation for this report indicates that this reduction might be achieved by many possible scenarios.

However, if the driving patterns of tens of millions of car owners are to go unchanged, then three other key factors will determine whether the required cuts in carbon emissions are likely to be met:

  • The take up of plug-in battery-electric cars,
  • The proportion of car-driven miles accounted for by these battery-electric vehicles, and,
  • The rate of departure of petrol and diesel cars from the UK’s vehicle fleet.

The modelling recognises existing government policies, such as the ban on the sale of new pure petrol and diesel cars from 2030, and the forthcoming Zero Emission Vehicle mandate (which requires a specified percentage of manufacturers’ new car and van sales to be zero emission each year from 2024).

However, it does not allow for any transformational shift in either the affordability of motoring or in public behaviours that might result from fresh policies yet to be announced.

The analysis looks at the complementary changes that would be needed in scenarios where car mileage doesn’t fall. The modelling reveals that, if the total number of car-driven miles stays steady or continues to grow, then battery electric cars would potentially have to account for some 35% of the total car fleet in 2030 (around 13.5 million electric cars compared to a projected 38.6 million cars in total), and these would have to account for at least 37% of all car miles driven.

Currently, less than 2% (548,000) of all cars licensed in the UK are pure battery electric, though sales are rising fast with almost half of those now on UK roads registered last year.

However, compounding the challenge, the average age of cars on the road is rising. In 1994 it was just over 6 years but by the end of 2021 it had risen to 8 years, 4 months.

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “From the point of view of the planet the next car people buy is critical.

“For those thinking of going electric but wavering, perhaps put off by the up-front price, there is a case for pausing to see how things play out in the next year or two, rather than falling back to petrol.

“Bearing in mind that annual mileage per-car was already falling way before Covid maybe planning for a reduction in total car mileage wouldn’t be as contentious as some fear, particularly if accompanied by complementary policies, such as support for public transport.

Andy Eastlake, Zemo Partnership's CEO who provided input to the RAC Foundation report said: “Zemo has always supported the need to use 'every tool in the box' in getting to Net Zero. This analysis from the RAC Foundation highlights how much the risk of failing to meet our targets grows if we don't fully consider the full suite of potential measures that can help to get us there.”

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