Research from our fellows

November 25, 2020

Electric vehicles will not deliver net zero carbon targets

Professor John Whitelegg was appointed FIT Senior Fellow in 2020.

Road safety

The discussion around transport decarbonisation and the importance of reducing transport’s CO2 emissions is increasingly focussed on electric vehicles, the provision of charging infrastructure and substantial public funds to encourage the switch from petrol and diesel to zero carbon alternatives.

The focus on EVs is misplaced and will not deliver the degree of decarbonisation we require to achieve net zero carbon targets. It will also embed transport policy and spending in a system that promotes the use of vehicles and the car as a default option. It also ignores the enormous potential of alternatives to the car.

Recent analysis by Transport for Quality of Life explains “why a switch to electric cars is not enough, and why traffic reduction is also needed. The level of traffic reduction needed by 2030 could be between 20% and 60%, depending on the speed of the switch to electric vehicles.”

The petrol/diesel ban and promotion of EVs has ignored the well-established and widely used framework that is designed to deliver sustainable transport and lowest possible carbon emissions.  This is the “Avoid Shift Improve” (ASI) concept.

Avoid shift improve

Download the ASI guideline

There is a huge literature on the details of how “avoid and shift” can reduce vehicle kms of car trips and how this reduces CO2 emissions.  Why are these interventions not at the centre of central and local government policy?

The termination of petrol and diesel to be replaced by electric and possibly hydrogen vehicles is part of “improve”, but only part. “Improve” also includes vehicle size and weight and permitted speeds and the potential for intelligent speed management to reduce CO2 emissions.  In a climate emergency we need the full synergistic impact of the full list of options in all three dimensions and not one part of one dimension.

The failure of central and local government to embrace ASI is a failure to understand synergy and the importance of multiple approaches, all in place at the same time, to deal with a climate emergency.

It is also a failure to understand public health, fiscal prudence and fairness in transport spending.

The World Health Organisation has produced a Global Action Plan to increase physical activity to contribute to the reduction of cardio-vascular disease, obesity and diabetes.  This includes a public health imperative to switch transport choices from sitting in cars (however powered) to walking, cycling and public transport.

EVs do not reduce road traffic danger and the probability of death when a child pedestrian is hit by car is the same as it is when hit by a petrol/diesel car. Large numbers of EVs on residential streets deter walking and cycling, make congestion worse and they still produce deadly particulate matter from brake and tyre wear.  

In addition they account for a large greenhouse gas burden (so called embodied carbon) and they will require lots more by-passes and road widening.  The £27 billion (RIS2) national road building plan and the £7 billion local roads plan are the fiscal and environmental consequences of focussing on what powers a vehicle rather than the far more important question of how we can reduce vehicle kms of car travel.

The Stockholm Environment Institute produced a report in 2010 outlining in detail how we can achieve huge reductions in transport carbon by 2050.  That report, Towards a zero carbon vision for UK transport, can be downloaded here.

The report concludes that we can achieve a 100% decarbonised land transport system in the UK by 2050 using a package of behavioural, spatial and technological measures that are fully in conformity with “Avoid, Shift, Improve”. These will generate large numbers of co-benefits in public health, environmental quality and fairness.

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