A net-zero 2050 emissions target – what does this mean for electric vehicles?

A net-zero 2050 emissions target – what does this mean for electric vehicles?

The Committee says this target is necessary for the UK is to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, and feasible because the relevant technologies are now understood and (with the right policies) deliverable. It says the target is also cost effective because costs of key technologies have reduced markedly since the current 80% by 2050 target was first introduced by the Climate Change Act 2008.

If the Committee gets its way, what could this mean for Electric Vehicles (EV)?

In its Road to Zero Strategy published in July 2018, the government confirmed an ambition for at least half of new cars – and as many as 70% – to be ultra-low emission by 2030. Beyond that date, under its air quality plan the government is saying the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans will end by 2040. These measures are part of a planned massive expansion of green infrastructure across the UK, placing the UK at the forefront of an industry estimated to be worth up to £7.6 trillion p/a by 2050.

This Strategy document goes on to acknowledge that a huge expansion of charge point infrastructure must take place for this to happen – with ambitious policies to match – so as to unlock consumer choice in favour of EV. This in turn will require distribution networks to adapt, including to the potential opportunities presented by vehicle to grid (V2G) technologies and smart homes.

So far, so ambitious. However, in its latest report the Committee on Climate Change now tell us these plans are not stretching enough.

We should not forget that transport is now the largest source of UK GHG emissions (23% of the total), with less than 0.5% of the total kilometres driven done using EV or plug-in hybrid – with biofuels at around 2%. If higher ambition levels are needed anywhere, transport would be a good place to start.

Indeed, in one of the more eye-catching recommendations from the Committee, it proposes bringing forward the existing 2040 deadline for sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans, to 2035 at the latest. HGVs are much trickier to decarbonise, and here the Committee recommends a decision in the mid-2020s on the required infrastructure for zero emission HGVs, ready for deployment in the late 2020s and throughout the 2030s.

A 2035 target would clearly signal an accelerated EV roll out, and the Committee notes that EV lifetime costs will not reach parity with petrol and diesel without subsidy until the mid-2020s. Before then, financial incentives must therefore continue, and to support that deployment growth there must be ongoing monitoring of the charging infrastructure roll out.

According to the Committee, this will require 3.500 rapid and ultra-rapid chargers near motorways to enable long journeys, and 210,000 public charges in towns and cities. Contrast that with the numbers today – just 21,000 public charges of all speeds.

In turn, this charging infrastructure, combined with the increased electrification of heat, will significantly increase demand on the system, presenting challenges for distribution networks and the system operator. System flexibility through smart charging and hybrid heat pumps will help manage demand peaks and accommodate renewables.

However, that will not avoid the need for major network upgrades, and on this the Committee urges aggressive future proofing so that grid capacity constraints do not impede EV growth in the 2020s, and risk delivery of EV cost savings in the 2030s. This will need better regional coordination and national leadership, with a role for the National Infrastructure Commission.

The Committee also cite battery technology as a growing sector, where companies in the chemical and battery industries have the potential to earn a place in the supply chain of a domestic battery manufacturing capability.

The government is already laying the groundwork, with investments in battery research for EV and other applications, notably through the Faraday Battery Challenge, which has been set up with a £246m fund as part of the Industrial Strategy. This includes £80m for the new UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, under development by a consortium comprising Coventry City Council, the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP and the Warwick Manufacturing Group, which is due to open in 2020.

One question not properly answered yet is, what to do with all these car batteries when they reach their end of life? If we are to avoid a recycling gap as the EV transition takes hold, car and battery manufacturers must keep a focus on technology options for re-use or recycling. Responsibilities already lie with manufacturers under EU law, but there is a case for standardisation and increased regulation in this area.