Archie MacPherson is Group Managing Director at Pilot Group where they keeping a close eye on what the UK is doing to improve its electric vehicle charging infrastructure, which it needs to improve if we are to meet our climate goals. Here is the state of play as we see it – and what needs to happen next if we are to truly tackle the climate crisis.
As the UK trudges its way out of its latest nationwide lockdown, enacted in response to covid-19, we face an even greater crisis still – the climate crisis. Yet one lesson that can be learned from the covid-19 pandemic is just how quickly and radically we can act when faced with adversity, if civil society, government, and business work together and recognise the scale of the challenge.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the impact of Covid-19 has not been the negative story that was initially expected. UK consumers, for instance, are increasingly turning to electric vehicles, with electric vehicles demand up 185.9% in 2020 compared to 2019, despite a historic slowdown in car sales across the board. The finance industry, too, has seen a sustained increase in the demand for sustainable and ESG-related products, indicating that sustainable investing has turned a corner despite the grim economic consensus across the world.
Yet more needs to be done to tackle the climate crisis. If we can learn anything from the countries who have most successfully contained the Covid-19 crisis, it is that to act early, and to act comprehensively, has stood certain countries in good stead. Those who failed to act until it was too late – and failed to recognise the scale of the crisis – are still bearing the brunt today.
Reading the papers, you might think that the scale of the climate crisis has been grasped, yet even the most forward-thinking measures simply do not go far enough. The UK for its part must up its game in the net-zero challenge, harnessing the power of civil society, government, and business to work in tandem to tackle the climate crisis.
One area where consumers, businesses, and government can work together is on electric vehicle adoption. Momentum is building around electric vehicles, but much more needs to be done if the UK is to truly become a leader in electric vehicle adoption.
First of all, while electric vehicle sales grew in 2020, only nine percent of motorists plan to ‘go electric’ when they next purchase a car. While this shows a steady increase, up from six percent in 2019 and three percent in 2018, 78% of drivers are still put off by the price of electric vehicles, indicating that the green alternative is still out of the price range of British motorists compared to conventional vehicles. With many in the UK facing unemployment and hardship in the months to come, this is a crucial sticking point when it comes to electric vehicle adoption.
The UK Government already offers a Plug-in Car Grant of £1,000 for electric vehicle owners, but an increase to the grant would offer motorists valuable respite. Motorists also favour VAT on zero-emissions vehicles being cut or abolished. Given the UK Government’s much-publicised commitment to phase out the sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, this should be a no-brainer for the Government and Rishi Sunak. Instead of focusing energies on how to fund the tax shortfall of this commitment, the focus should be on the short term – how to encourage mass adoption of electric vehicles so that the 2030 target is met as soon as possible.
This is even more urgent given that the UK Government has now repeatedly brought forward plans to phase out new petrol and diesel cars – from 2040 under Theresa May’s leadership, to 2035 and now 2030 under Boris Johnson’s.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, even if adoption increases, the UK’s electric vehicle charging network leaves much to be desired. The UK still places behind The Netherlands, France, and Germany in terms of its number of public electric vehicle charge points, and it needs to drastically improve its number of charge points per electric vehicle as demand for electric vehicles grows. A briefing produced by the Policy Exchange think tank suggests that in order to prepare for the new 2030 target, new electric vehicle charge points need to be installed at a rate of 35,000 per year, up from the current average of 7,000.
Simply installing a number of charge points in densely populated areas won’t work either. Business fleets of cars looking to join the electric vehicle revolution and drivers in rural locations will all need to have a consistent approach across the whole of the UK if they are to seriously consider electric vehicles. In addition, in order to incentivise consumers to buy electric vehicles, they will need to be convinced that the vehicle will be suitable not only for short trips to and from the shops, but longer trips across the country too.
As part of its November 2020 announcement, the UK Government pledged £1.3 billion to accelerate the roll-out of charge points for electric vehicles – a headache-inducing figure. Yet in January 2021, it announced a pitiful £20 million fund available for councils to create on-street charge points by April 2022, providing funding for 8,000 on-street chargers. Yet this clearly falls short of the accelerated rollout that is needed to ensure consumers and business owners are truly comfortable enough to make the change.
The Government needs to add to its commitment by bringing business on board, creating better incentives for businesses to install charge points for employees and customers, as well as incentivising them to electrify their own fleets as much as possible.
This Government claims big ambitions when it comes to the electric vehicle revolution, but consumers and businesses alike must hold them to account on their promises. The UK must step up its game in the net-zero challenge – and electric vehicles must be a part of that solution.