Michael Gove will herald the end of the internal combustion engine in Britain within a generation as he announces plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040.
The move by the environment secretary, which follows the lead set by France two weeks ago, will be set out in the government’s long-awaited “air quality plan” on Wednesday.
Mr Gove will signal that all newly bought cars will have to be electric within a quarter of a century.
His promise to “ban” other cars shifts the government further from its existing position, which was an “ambition” for all new cars to be zero-emission by 2040.
The coalition’s “Carbon Plan” in 2011 also predicted that all new cars sold beyond that year would have to produce no emissions in order to meet a target of having no petrol or diesel cars on the roads by 2050.
But Mr Gove’s hugely symbolic announcement will be seen as a milestone in the shift towards electric cars, which currently account for less than 1 per cent sold in Britain.
It is part of a wider package of measures designed to help bring pollution levels back within legal limits in towns and cities including London and Glasgow.
Mr Gove will order councils overseeing the most polluted roads to set out how they intend to reduce pollution levels. That could include the retrofitting of buses or changing of road layouts, in an attempt to improve air quality on 81 of the most polluting roads in Britain.
Should that fail to bring down nitrogen dioxide levels, ministers will let local authorities introduce charges, or ban the dirtiest cars, at certain times of day.
The announcement on Wednesday also includes incentives for green taxis and for better cycling and walking facilities. There will also be a consultation on a scrappage scheme for old diesel vehicles.
The overall package has been earmarked as costing £3bn, but 90 per cent of this has already been announced.
It came as BMW announced that its new electric Mini would be assembled in Britain at its factory in Cowley, near Oxford, from 2019.
“Our plan to deal with dirty diesels will help councils clean up emission hotspots, often a single road, through commonsense measures which do not unfairly penalise ordinary working people,” said Defra, the environment department.
“Poor air quality is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK and this government is determined to take strong action in the shortest time possible.”
Ministers were forced to republish their air pollution plans before the end of this month after two legal actions by ClientEarth, the green campaigners. The High Court ruled that a previous version failed to comply with an EU directive to cut emissions in the “shortest possible time”.
Poor air quality is increasingly judged a significant risk to public health in the UK, to the detriment of the economy. A recent report by the Royal College of Physicians last year estimated that air pollution caused 40,000 premature deaths every year.
A 2040 ban on sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles will be welcomed by many environmental campaigners. However, some green groups say these cars should be taken off the road much sooner.
London has drawn up a new “T-charge” under which 10,000 of the oldest, dirtiest cars will have to pay a £10 daily levy to use the roads. However, Mr Gove is not expected to suggest that other parts of the country follow that route.
When Emmanuel Macron announced this month that he would ban diesel and petrol cars by 2040 it was seen as a key moment for the potential decline of the internal combustion engine.
David Bailey, an automotive industry expert at Aston University, told the Guardian newspaper that Mr Gove’s plan was sufficiently “long term to be taken seriously”.
“If enacted, it would send a very clear signal to manufacturers and consumers of the direction of travel and may accelerate a transition to electric cars,” he said.
A figure close to Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, said that City Hall was still waiting to see the details of the plan. But he said that the government needed to announce a “fully funded” diesel scrappage fund rather than just a consultation.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said on Tuesday night that an outright ban could undermine the automotive sector, which supported more than 800,000 jobs across the UK, unless there were new incentives for consumers to buy electric cars.
“Much depends on the cost of these new technologies and how willing consumers are to adopt battery, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen cars,” he said.
“Currently, demand for alternatively fuelled vehicles is growing but still at a very low level as consumers have concern over affordability, range and charging points.”
The move will not affect car models currently produced by Britain’s car plants, which made 1.7m vehicles last year.
Car models run in seven-year cycles, so all of the current vehicles being produced will have been replaced or phased out by the time the ban comes into force.
Analysts expect sales of electric vehicles to take off significantly once they reach cost parity with internal combustion engines.
UBS recently said it expected one in three cars in Europe to be electric by 2025.
Even some of the most ardent defenders of petrol or diesel engines have declined to forecast their long-term prospects.
Matthias Müller, chief executive of Volkswagen, the world’s largest carmaker, said the combustion engine would play a role for the next two decades, which would take it to 2037.
Carmakers are all already developing electric vehicles in order to meet strict European emissions rules that come into force in 2021. Many are also planning for the slow demise of the internal combustion engine.
Volvo Cars has announced that every new car will be hybrid or fully electric by 2019, although many of its cars will still contain traditional engines.
Many carmakers, from VW to Aston Martin, have said that they expect a quarter of their sales to be electrified cars by 2025.