All sales of new petrol and diesel cars will cease in the UK by 2040, under plans to tackle air pollution.
But with electric cars currently accounting for less than 1% of new sales, the switch will mean seismic changes, and gives rise to a host of pressing questions.
Why are petrol and diesel cars being banned?
Poor air quality is the “biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK” – thought to be linked to about 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK – the government says. While air pollution has been mostly falling in the UK, in many cities nitrogen oxides- which form part of the discharge from car exhausts – regularly breach safe levels .
Diesel vehicles produce the overwhelming majority of nitrogen oxide gases coming from roadside sources.
The government was ordered by the courts to produce new plans to tackle illegal levels of harmful pollutant nitrogen dioxide, a form of the nitrogen oxide pollutants emitted by vehicles.
Concern about air pollution is not new, but the issue has risen to prominence because the UK government lost court cases over caused by nitrogen dioxide levels. It has been compounded by the fact car makers were found to be cheating emissions tests.
Scientists are also more certain about the ways air pollution harms people. Recently, it has even been linked with dementia, although that link remains debatable.
The High Court set an end-of-July deadline for the government to publish its clean air plans for tackling.
What else is being done to reduce pollution?
As well as the future ban on petrol and diesel cars, more than £200m is being given to local authorities to draw up plans to tackle particular roads with high pollution. This is all part of the same package of measures from the government.
Will tax revenues from petrol and diesel dry up?
It’s likely the government will have to change the way fuel is taxed to make up for losing billions of pounds at the pump.
The government raised about £27.9bn from fuel duties in 2016-17, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. That’s getting on for 4% of the total tax take.
Say I buy an electric car… where will I recharge it?
There are more than 4,500 locations with charging points around the UK, according to website Zap-Map.com. New locations are being added daily – with an increase of 255 in the past 30 days alone.
But if mass market ownership of electric cars is to be viable, there will need to be on-demand access to power points. This raises a number of potential problems. For example, where will power points be sited? Will roads have to be dug up for cabling? Will drivers have to share power points, and so be restricted to certain charging times?
It can take up to eight hours to charge an electric vehicle, so more efficient batteries will be needed.
While some vehicles can only travel up to 50 miles between charges, others can manage more than 200 miles. This puts commuting and city driving within reach, but makes long distance journeys more difficult.
What about paying for old cars to be scrapped?
According to its consultation, the government believed a so-called scrappage scheme would take 15,000 of the most polluting diesel and petrol cars off the road in a year.
Drivers would be given about £8,000 to switch to a fully electric alternative, meaning the government would have to fork out £110m. The impact on emissions of nitrogen dioxide would be to cut them by 0.02%, not a huge change in the grand scheme of things.
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The Treasury is believed to have objected strongly because of the cost, but also on the grounds it would be hard to target the scheme at those who most need it – and prevent it becoming a subsidy for drivers who could already afford to change to electric vehicles.
Why not ban the dirtiest vehicles from the most polluted roads?
Environmental campaigners believe creating what are termed “clean air zones” (CAZs) in the most polluted towns and cities is the most effective and speedy way of reducing emissions of nitrogen dioxide. Councils will be able to impose these zones and will be able to block certain vehicles or impose a daily charge on drivers.
But the government hopes they won’t do this. While its own research suggests CAZs are the most effective means of getting emissions down, cutting them buy 18% compared with 0.02% for a scrappage scheme, policy makers argue they are too blunt an instrument and can cause all sorts of complications for local areas. For example, if a council in one town imposes a clean air zone and its neighbour doesn’t, will traffic (and the emissions they cause) merely move to the cheaper location?
Most of the breaches with diesel emissions happen on 81 roads around the UK, says the government, in vast swathes in the hearts of urban areas. It wants councils to target these roads with a range of tactics that cut nitrogen dioxide, including removing speed bumps and changing traffic lights so that traffic isn’t slowing or speeding.
However, recognising that this might not be enough, the plan does give local authorities the power to charge or ban drivers on certain sections of road.
How do diesel and petrol compare as pollutants?
Sales of diesel cars surged in the early 2000s as drivers were encouraged to choose them because they had lower carbon dioxide emissions than petrol cars.
While diesel cars are the biggest single source of nitrogen oxide emissions, diesel powered buses, coaches and – especially – heavy goods vehicles are the really heavy polluters, producing eight to 10 times the amount of gases per kilometre than cars. There are, however, many more cars.
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