Do you remember Britain’s ‘dash for diesel’? It began more than 20 years ago when the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced a new car tax system favouring vehicles with lower emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Diesel cars tend to be more fuel-efficient with lower emissions, and Mr Brown hailed them as the greener and cheaper option. Over a decade and a half, the number of such vehicles on British roads quadrupled.
What didn’t emerge until much later — although it was no secret in the motor industry or among government officials — was that diesel cars also emitted greater quantities of other pollutants, nitrogen oxides and particulates that damage air quality and human health.
Such particulates, which have been linked to respiratory problems, heart disease and lung cancer, have been responsible for thousands of premature deaths. Britain wasn’t alone, of course. In their desire to be seen as ever greener, governments of richer countries were all pursuing the same policies on car tax, or cutting duty on diesel fuel.
Today, diesel is a dirty word and many countries penalise drivers with extra congestion charges and vehicle duty.
I was reminded of this by the recent warning from the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, on the ‘polluting particles’ produced by battery-powered vehicles. Not from exhaust emissions, but from brake linings, tyres and road surfaces, because such vehicles are much heavier owing to the presence of the battery.
No doubt others experienced a similar sense of deja vu. For in an effort to signal climate leadership, No 10 is racing to end the dominance of petrol and diesel-powered cars. Indeed, it is banning the sale of new fossil-fuel vehicles from 2030. Just as it once extolled the benefits of diesel, we are told now that electric cars are the future — and a crucial fix for climate change.
What it fails to tell us, however, is that electric cars are not the answer for many people, for a host of practical reasons. These include their upfront cost, limited range, the time it takes to charge batteries, the new infrastructure needed for charging points and the extra power required to supply them.
Even more alarmingly, a report in the journal Nature suggests that because electric cars are heavier than other vehicles, they will likely kill more occupants of other vehicles in traffic accidents.
As for climate change, electric cars will do little to arrest it. So for now, at least, they are one of the least effective and most expensive ways to cut carbon — and economically they are a bad bet.
Just last week, a report by the Commons Transport Committee found that taxpayers face an eye-watering £35 billion bill to plug the gap created by the switch to electric cars. At present, owners of such cars pay neither fuel duty, which nets £28 billion every year, nor vehicle exercise duty, which brings in £7 billion. The revenue is spent on schools, hospitals and other priorities such as the police, as well as fixing roads.
And not only do they reduce government revenue, they also demand costly subsidies. In Germany, the subsidy is above ¤10,000 (£8,460) for a fully electric car, but that still drives only one sale in eight.
Norway leads the global race, with electric cars accounting for 65 per cent of new sales, but it takes a ludicrous amount of government cash to achieve this. It includes savings of $29,000 (£21,400) on average per car in sales and registration tax, and $11,000 (£8,100) on road tolls.
Who is buying the cars is another concern. A study by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that almost all electric car subsidies go to the wealthiest 20 per cent, for whom the purchase of an extra car is no great sacrifice. In addition, 90 per cent of electric car owners also have a fossil-fuel vehicle they use for longer journeys.
As for charging, for many owners this is simply a question of fitting a point in their driveway. But 40 per cent of UK households don’t have access to off-street parking. According to some estimates, the global cost of building the infrastructure needed is $6 trillion (£4.4 trillion).
And what of the huge increase in power production needed to charge millions of electric cars? Climate policy is already adding more than £10 billion annually to Britain’s electricity costs, as inefficient renewables continue to need support. If the extra power required for charging the cars is generated from fossil fuels to keep electricity costs down, much of the environmental gain would be lost.
In time, better technology will make batteries cheaper and electric cars will become more economical. But concerns over range and recharging will be much more difficult to rectify.
The truth is that most people invest in cars because they give them mobility. They don’t want to be stuck with a flat battery or endure forced stops to top it up. All of the above is why many people are reluctant to embrace electric vehicles, even with huge bribes.
According to one authoritative study, even by 2050 electric cars will make up just 20 per cent of global car travel.
But perhaps none of that matters if electric cars will save the planet? And they will, won’t they? Er, no.
As for charging, for many owners this is simply a question of fitting a point in their driveway. But 40 per cent of UK households don’t have access to off-street parking
Such modest climate benefits don’t make up for the additional downsides of electric vehicles, which include the harsh environmental and social costs that come with mining rare metals needed for batteries.
So what should politicians be doing? For a start, they could stop showering subsidies on electric cars and focus on smarter solutions. The IEA found that hybrid cars save about the same amount of CO2 as electric cars over their lifetime. Moreover, they are already competitive with petrol cars price-wise — even without subsidies — and, crucially, they don’t have most of the electric car downsides outlined above.