As Elon Musk orders the first diggers into Germany to build his first European gigafactory, many British shoulders slumped in, if not shame, resigned disappointment. It seemed inevitable that the ‘home of the car’ would be welcoming gleaming Tesla Model S, X, Y and 3s off the production line, and whatever other model named after a random keyboard punch Elon designs in the future. That’s not too much of a bad thing globally. Germany emits more CO2 than the UK and France combined, and with the largest car market on the continent, it would be no bad thing for the country to switch over quickly to cleaner transport. The ‘er’ signifies the fact that the UK will phase out its coal plants to power these new vehicles in six years at the latest, as opposed to Germany’s nineteen, but that’s another story. Germany isn’t alone in this, in fact, the EU as a whole is starting to take a much stronger interest in decarbonising transport than previously.
From 2021, the EU will introduce new rules on automotive maker’s rules, stating that the average emissions of CO2 per vehicle sold from companies must be 95g per km, or large fines will loom. The easiest way of avoiding these for car companies are to build a certain number of electric vehicles to balance out their sales, hence there are a large number of manufacturers unveiling new electric models prior to 2021. But EU rules don’t specify any particular countries this need apply to, and the expectations is that sales will be higher in the more affluent car markets of France, Germany and other Western European countries. The result is that once the UK leaves the EU single market, there will be no requirements for car manufactures to do the same for the UK, and could likely to prioritise investing in the car markets of other countries.
Therefore, the UK while outside of the EU needs to maintain a competitive edge and showcase that there will be a large demand for electric vehicles in the UK market. No other market of a comparative size has a 2030 ban on conventional vehicles, which would go some way to making the UK among the most electric vehicle hungry countries in the world. The only EU countries with an earlier phase out date are the smaller markets of the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Ireland, with non-EU countries such as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland also in this group. This ban would not be sufficient on its own – EU regulations are progressively implementing stricter emissions targets from 2021, so there would still be more immediate incentives for auto manufacturers. But this would send a strong signal to markets that the UK is committed to a total shift away from petrol and diesel vehicles. Additionally, the 2030 ban could be the start of a wider range of measures to phase out conventional vehicles, with the 2030 ban representing an end date and similar additional targets for auto manufacturers in intervening years to shape the direction of travel.
The future of the UK’s car industry will be shaped enormously by the wider decisions made in the politics surrounding Brexit. But the UK can and must still take action in areas in which it can control, whether our driver of 2030 is buying a German made Tesla or a British made electric Mini. The UK has a history of lagging behind in the car industry, but equally, a history of being far ahead of its European neighbours in new low emission technologies. Britain does have some disadvantages in the car industry, but there’s no reason why its policy on the type of vehicles on sale in the country have to match. Not only can the UK match the EU’s ambition on electric vehicles, there is no reason why it should not overtake it. A 2030 ban in the EU is unlikely due to having to pass through the decision making process of many more countries, and no such policy is outlined in the EU’s Green New Deal. The UK has the right political atmosphere to make a 2030 phase-out work, especially as the current government has pledged to review it, and there is no reason why interim targets cannot be more stringent than our European neighbours.