The UK’s race to net zero hits a chicane

Motoring in countries like the UK appears to be racing towards a collision with the irresistible force paradox, says Shahzad Sheikh, AKA BrownCarGuy, a UK-based motoring journalist and media presenter.

By Shahzad Sheikh, BrownCarGuy calendar 26 Oct 2023 Views icon5133 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
Photo courtesy: Lee Rose

Photo courtesy: Lee Rose

While India grapples with Net Zero ambitions versus the need to keep the masses on the move, the Western World finds itself careering towards zero emissions goals so fast, it dare not apply the brakes for fear of brake dust emissions compromising the swingeing targets it has set itself. However, a dawning realisation that those same targets might well prove impossible to achieve, could see governments downshift a couple of gears.

Europe selected 2035 as the deadline date to stop the sale of brand-new petrol and diesel cars. It was cast in stone, until the stone was sledgehammered by Germany and Italy.

The Germans have poured millions into developing e-fuels, a form of ‘net zero’ petrol, created by recovering CO2 from the air. Thus, the country that gives us Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen, has a legitimate argument for maintaining the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) beyond 2035, because it can be run sustainably.

As for Italy, they collectively flicked their chins with the back of their hands with an indifference that was interpreted as ‘we don’t care’. It appears ICE will get a stay of execution until at least 2040 and perhaps beyond, as far as mainland Europe is concerned.

Britain on the other hand originally set its target at 2030 for new ICE sales, with an allowance for some (as yet undefined) hybrids to continue until 2035. However Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak on September 20, 2023, wielding his own sledgehammer, smashed that to smithereens too. Nonetheless, he insists that the UK is still fully committed to Net Zero 2050. 

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Jaguar Land Rover facility in July, 2023 

As such, short of actually banning cars, car ownership and indeed driving, the UK is doing everything possible to dissuade motorists, essentially by pricing and legislating them off the roads. This from a nation that in the 1950s was the world’s biggest exporter of cars and gave India the Hindustan Ambassador (Morris Oxford). It would be tragic if it didn’t feel like a bad Ealing Comedy.

What are those measures? Restrictive low emissions zones for a start. The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London, extended last month to cover the entire capital city, all 600 square miles of it making it the biggest single low emission zone in the world, requires petrol cars meet Euro 4 standards, and diesels meet even more stringent Euro 6 emissions standards. What’s that you say? Didn’t we Brexit? Yes, but it remains a Brexit of selective convenience, usually based on incompetent ignorance.

Drive a car that doesn’t meet those standards into the zone and you’re looking at a £12.50 daily charge. That includes classic cars, unless they are over 40-years-old when they can be registered as ‘Historic’ vehicles (10 years over the international FIVA recognised norm for cars attaining classic status).  Unfortunately, many would-be classics never made it to 40, because they were killed off by devastating and indiscriminate ‘scrappage schemes’ designed to encourage motorists to move to newer cleaner cars by giving them up to £2000 for sending their old cars to the crusher. Except that two grand doesn’t buy you much these days, and you’ll probably end up with a worse car than you started with! Especially when the Euro 6 diesel standard in particular means that many perfectly well-maintained pre-2016 diesel SUVs are being made redundant.

Additionally, the advent of the blanket 20mph limit (a reduction of 10mph) in most of London’s streets, and the entirety of Wales’ residential areas, is further frustrating drivers, especially when you realise that Wales is a favoured destination for motoring, motorcycling, and staycations.

Then you have low traffic neighbourhoods or LTNs involved blocking off some residential streets with giant plant pots to divert traffic into busy main roads thereby aggravating traffic, congestion and pollution. That is until local residents, angry they hadn’t been consulted, took matters into their own hands and shifted the barriers. Sunak has ordered a review into all LTNs.

The concept of 15-minute cities, implemented in Oxford, leaves car owners with a limited number of ‘passes’ to drive directly into a neighbouring area, after which they’d have to drive out to an orbital ring road and re-enter through a designated route. Which if anything seems to further exacerbate issues around car usage, fuel consumption and emissions. As with the LTNs, there has been something of a backlash, and protests around the latest ULEZ extension continue unabated. The driving denizens are disgusted. And their anger has manifested into action.

Prabhdeep Singh, a British Army Veteran, staged a week-long hunger strike in protest against ULEZ. He did this in Uxbridge where voters had already voiced their outrage at the ballot. Ex-PM Boris Johnson’s former constituency, up for grabs after his resignation, was meant to be a shoo-in for the opposition Labour Party. Instead, much to the Conservative Party’s own surprise and elation, it was retained when the ULEZ expansion became an electioneering issue. This has become something of a turning point in British politics and has directly led to a softening of the commitment to Net Zero.

And the fall-out is spilling over into the EV arena causing the electric revolution to experience something of an uncharacteristic stall. With 8,00,000 electric vehicles registered on the UK's roads since 2018 according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), it would seem Britain’s motorists are keen to plug-in. With one EV registered every minute, Britain has actually become Europe's second largest zero emission car market by volume.

However, all is not as it seems, because while 68 percent of non-EV drivers say they want to switch to electric, only two percent plan to do so this year, and more than half claim they won't be ready till 2026 or later. The UK's biggest classified website, Auto Trader concurs, reporting that only 47 percent of drivers think an EV will fit in their lifestyle, despite softening prices boosting sales. Concerns over charging infrastructure continue to put buyers off, as well as the rising price of electricity. The average purchase price is still about 33 percent more expensive than an ICE equivalent, and while government subsidies have ended, other incentives such as free Vehicle Excise Duty (road tax) and company car tax breaks, are also being stripped away.

Buyers appear reluctant, but legislators continue to draft draconian dictates. If the proposed ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicles) Mandate goes ahead (and that’s by no means certain), from January 1, 2024, car makers will be slammed with fines of over £600m if they don't hit very specifically defined EV production and sales targets.

Last year 17 percent of cars sold here were zero-emission. It’s proposed that from next year every manufacturer will be set a target of 22 percent. This rises in increments each year to hit 80 percent by 2030, when of course some petrol hybrids will be allowed to continue.

If car makers oversell ICE vehicles, they'll be hit by a £15,000 fine per car. A credit system will be introduced where manufacturers that exceed their EV allocation, can sell credits to those that fall short! Which sets up an interesting dilemma of some European and Japanese car companies inadvertently subsidising Chinese production (from where the majority of EVs will come).

Motoring in the UK appears to be racing towards a collision with the irresistible force paradox: an immovable deadline to be hit by unstoppable demand for ICE vehicles. It might be amusing to imagine that Net Zero will return
us to the age of the horse and carriage, but remember that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Says it all, really.

This opinion was first published in Autocar Professional's October 15, 2023 issue.

Shahzad Sheikh, AKA BrownCarGuy, is a UK-based motoring journalist and media presenter. Views expressed are those of the author. 

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