Sale of New Petrol and Diesel Cars and Vans

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:05 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:05 pm, 4th July 2019

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Peter Kyle on securing and introducing this incredibly important debate, the context of which is the climate crisis and this Government’s failure to respond to it with any real ambition.

As my hon. Friend mentioned at the outset, while we have been debating the issue the BBC has reported that sales of low emission cars have fallen for the first time in more than two years—I think I am right in saying that sales have fallen by 4.9% on last year.

The Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s own advisory body, has stated that the UK is “way off track” on meeting its own carbon emission targets in the 2020s and 2030s. Those targets were set under the Climate Change Act 2008 introduced by the previous Labour Government.

The Government are even further off track on their Paris climate change agreement commitments, to which we must adhere if we are to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change impacts. Transport is the worst performing sector of the economy. It accounts for a third of all carbon dioxide emissions and is now the UK’s largest source of greenhouse gas. Emissions are just 3% lower than in 1990, and they have risen since Labour left office in 2010.

Although vehicle technology has improved, reductions in transport emissions have been frustrated by growth in vehicle miles travelled on our roads. Between 1990 and 2018, vehicle miles travelled on our roads increased by 28% to 328 billion a year. If the Government wish to reduce transport emissions, in line with the UK’s targets, they must reduce the number of vehicle miles travelled on roads, which means giving greater support to public transport and active travel to encourage fewer car journeys. Unfortunately, the Government are heading in the wrong direction, with rising car use and falling public transport use.

We must decarbonise road transport by transitioning to electric vehicles and decarbonising the production of the electricity on which those vehicles rely. Reducing vehicle miles travelled on roads and switching to electric would also address poor air quality, which is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, as long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer, which lead to reduced life expectancy. We know that poor air quality is responsible for between 30,000 and 50,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, and the Environmental Audit Committee estimates that the total health cost of air pollution ranges between £8.5 billion and £20.2 billion a year.

In order to improve air quality, it is necessary to reduce the number of vehicle miles travelled on roads in areas of poor air quality, to transition to electric vehicles and to improve internal combustion engine technology. The Government have not been doing these things, as evidenced by the fact that the UK has been unlawfully breaching nitrogen dioxide limits since 2010. Road transport is responsible for some 80% of roadside NO2 concentrations, but the Government air quality strategy dodged road transport and instead focused on wood-burning stoves. The Government should understand that their failure to invest now will have damaging long-term economic, social and environmental costs. The climate crisis and the air pollution crisis require bold and immediate action, which is not forthcoming from the Government.

The motion that we are debating is right to bring to our attention the lack of progress and ambition on electric vehicles. By international standards, the Government’s current phase-out date is unambitious. No country that has adopted a phase-out date for the sale of new diesel and petrol vans and cars has chosen a date later than 2040. Norway has a phase-out date of 2025, while Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands all have a phase-out date of 2030. The Government’s commitment that all new cars and vans will be effectively zero emission is also vague. The policy should be more ambitious and should require vehicles to be fully, rather than effectively, zero emission.

Phase-out dates are important, because they give manufacturers, businesses and consumers the clarity they need to inform the investments they will have to make. The view that the UK should have a more ambitious phase-out date is shared by the cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, whose report “Electric vehicles: driving the transition” recommended a date of 2032.

Although phase-out dates are important, what matters in reducing vehicle emissions is to ensure that as many as possible of the vehicle miles travelled on UK roads are completed in electric vehicles, as soon as possible. A phase-out date in and of itself will not ensure that that happens, which is why it is vital that the Government provide the necessary support to accelerate the transition. That means breaking down the barriers that are frustrating the growth of the EV market, and cost is one of the most important discouraging factors. I speak as the owner of a little Renault Twizy, which is completely electric.

Market projections suggest that EVs could reach price equivalence with internal combustion engine vehicles by the mid-2020s. In the meantime, however, financial incentives will be required to help to bridge the gap if the Government are to deliver on their ambition of growing the EV market. Vehicle costs remain a major barrier to EV uptake in the UK. The up-front cost of most electric vehicles is substantially higher; they cost up to £10,000 more than their internal combustion engine equivalents, even after the Government support.

I am heeding your instruction and advice to me earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wanted to mention a few other points, especially the Government fleet, private fleets and the industrial strategy, but given the time constraints, I shall leave my remarks there.