Ruth Edwards is the Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe.
The first electric car was built 130 years ago and could travel at the heady speed of 14mph. For a time, it looked like there would be a VHS-Betamax style battle royale between electric cars and the internal combustion engine (ICE), but the high cost, low top speed, and short range of early electric vehicles handed victory to the chugging petrol alternative.
We now know this came at a considerable human and environmental cost. Alongside contributing to an increase in global temperatures and climate change, air pollution is a huge danger to public health, contributing to 36,000 premature deaths in the UK every year.
The transport industry is the biggest single contributor to the UK’s green house gas emissions, with petrol and diesel vehicles accounting for 90 per cent of the sector’s emissions. Moving to electric vehicles is vital to protect our environment and our health.
It will also help our public finances. In 2017, health conditions caused by air pollution were estimated to cost the NHS £157m; this is expected to rise to as much as £18.6 billion by 2035 if action isn’t taken.
The Government is making big investments in electric vehicles, for example the announcement in this year’s budget of £500m for a nation-wide charging network.
However, to truly shift into top gear we must go further.
Over the course of this Parliament, we will build at least a million new homes. It’s vital these include EV charging points or, where this is not possible, that developers fund on-street charging schemes. This is over a thousand pounds cheaper than retrofitting them once ICE cars are phased out. There is also the question of car parks and motorway service stations. Supermarkets and large retail parks should make more of their spaces electric by default and should be incentivised by the Government to do so.
Even before coronavirus, the job market had started to undergo huge change as new technologies in automation, data analytics, and mobile connectivity begin to revolutionise work and the skills required.
Investing in the roll-out of electric vehicles and associated infrastructure provides an opportunity for the UK to get ahead by creating Green Apprenticeships in areas such as battery technology. We should also set up Zero Carbon Academies, in strategic sites across the country, where the government is looking to increase investment and opportunities for local communities. Ministers should also incentivise private sector investment in the EV supply chain, building on precedent set through the Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund.
Finally, we should take heed of Parkinson’s Law that work expands to fill the time available, and move the target for phasing out ICE vehicles forward from 2035 to 2030, the date recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. The car industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. As the sector recovers, it needs to look forward rather than returning to an obsolete model. This is a unique opportunity to leap ahead of expectations. Doing so will be in line with consumer demand. In the UK new petrol and diesel registrations have fallen by more than 60 per cent on the previous year, but demand for electric vehicles was up 21.5 per cent on May 2019.
The argument that this transition is somehow too fast is both defeatist and simply wrong. The pandemic has shown us how much we can achieve in a short time if we need to do so. As recently as a decade ago, electric cars were viewed very much as rather niche and something of a joke. Who can forget the time Jeremy Clarkson spent decrying electric vehicles and laughing at their range and price tag? With the latest offerings from Tesla, Nissan, Honda, Jaguar and others, no-one is laughing now.
After more than a century on the road, our automotive industry is overdue for an MOT. It will need radical rewiring of infrastructure and a completely new engine – and this time, let’s go electric.