21 May 2024

A free market approach to transport decarbonisation

By Karl McCartney MP

For too long, decisions on reducing emissions from road transport have been tightly controlled by Central London, urban-dwelling, technocrats. Disconnected from the daily struggles of ordinary drivers, they have obsessively imposed an increasingly unpopular and unaffordable electric vehicle (EV) ‘revolution’ on an unwilling electorate. Rather than encouraging innovation in both existing and new technologies, we have instead pursued a one-size-fits-all policy.  

In a classic case of Whitehall jargon, the Department for Transport claims that their Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate and future ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars are ‘technology agnostic’ policies. 

In plain English, that means as long as the cars we drive are zero emission at the tailpipe, then any vehicle-type is given their benevolent approval. This excludes the internal petrol and diesel combustion engine that has underpinned over a century of mobility. Whilst at the same time conveniently ignoring the enormous battery-related emissions that go into manufacturing EVs.

Those of us within Parliament who have highlighted the dangers of putting all our eggs in the EV basket, such as the Transport Select Committee’s 2023 Fuelling the Future report, have been marginalised.

The Government can’t say they weren’t warned.

In recent years, the annual market share of EVs has plateaued while petrol-engine sales continue to rise as it becomes ever clearer that the current approach to transport decarbonisation does not work for consumers.

To his credit, Rishi Sunak recognised these risks when he announced last September that the 2030 ban on of the sale of new internal combustion vehicles was to be delayed until 2035. This was a sensible, pragmatic decision and was welcomed by motorists. 

Unfortunately, however, the Prime Minister’s instinct to stand up for drivers is not being consistently applied.

In the small print of the headline-grabbing announcement is the over-zealous ZEV mandate. Vehicle manufacturers will still be fined if they don’t hit annual Government EV sales quotas. Some 80% of new cars and 70% of new vans sold in Great Britain will now be zero emission by 2030, increasing to 100% by 2035. This will result in unprofitable margins and manufacturers having to drop prices in a bid to grapple with low demand. Just recently, the CEO of automaker Stellantis described the policy as ‘terrible for the UK’.

The rollout of charging infrastructure also remains problematic and costly, with rural areas in areas such as my home Lincolnshire county being left behind. If the EV transition is to work, there must be equal access to charging points.

That is why we need a fundamentally different approach. For a Conservative Party in need of reconnecting with our voters, such a change has the benefit of enjoying considerable support from those who supported us in 2019.

Private polling recently shared with Conservative MPs shows that among Conservative voters, the ZEV mandate’s plan to force manufacturers to make 80% of their new sales electric by 2030 holds a -11% approval rating.

This does not mean voters do not want to see action to reduce emissions. They simply want to be given a choice, which is something that we Conservatives, who instinctively value the free market and encourage innovation, should be championing.

This should include increasing the uptake of low-carbon liquid fuels (LCLFs). These fuels emit radically less carbon and can be ‘dropped-in’ to existing vehicles, leading to similar emissions reductions to EVs. This is if we measure emissions across their whole lifecycle and not just at the tailpipe.

We also wouldn’t need to spend billions replacing current infrastructure and vehicles, or force motorists to fork out for expensive EVs that rely on highly volatile, Chinese-controlled battery supply chains.

Drivers want them too, with 71% of all voters in favour of having LCLFs at petrol stations, compared to only 3% who oppose. When asked if new petrol and diesel cars capable of running on such fuels should still be banned in 2035, only 16% say the ban should go ahead.

The time is long overdue for Conservatives to put the needs of everyday motorists above the wishes of climate activists who will never vote for us. Let’s scrap the ZEV mandate, axe the 2035 ban and instead embrace a truly market-driven approach to transport decarbonisation.

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Karl McCartney is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Lincoln and a member of the Transport Select Committee.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.