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Sustainability Newsletter – September 2023

Erin Baker shares her thoughts on the UK's changing net zero targets and delaying the 2030 ban for new petrol and diesel cars.

Erin Baker

Words by: Erin Baker

Published on 20 September 2023 | 0 min read

Depressing sustainability news this month, after the Government abandoned its 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, pushing that deadline back to 2035 (so who knows what the actual date will be in the end, if indeed there will be one, given climate-protection policies are apparently wholly dependent on whether the Government believes they’ll win votes or not?).
The Government has taken the utterly nonsensical approach of focusing on the 2050 net-zero date as the only goal in town, with the various staging posts on the way to it now irrelevant. I know this, having just come off a frustrating call on BBC 5Live with an MP who ought to know better, given he’s a member of the Transport Select Committee, who has essentially said the goal remains net-zero by 2050, and how we get there is of little consequence. What an extraordinary statement. So as long as we halt mining, the extraction of oil and burning of fossil fuels, single-use plastics, wood-burning stoves, peat-bog plundering and deforestation for cattle-rearing and growing soy in December 2049, we can do what we like until that point? I’m not sure that’s how global warming works. We need to transition to electric cars now, not just for carbon reduction but also better air quality. Yes they’re expensive (although used electric cars, which account for 90 per cent of electric sales, are now in many instances the same price as their petrol counterparts), yes the charging infrastructure isn’t where it needs to be, but how do you suppose we resolve those issues without buying the product and therefore injecting cash back into the system to allow car brands, suppliers of batteries and magnets and sulphate-processing plants to continue the invaluable work they’ve embarked on? Also, we may be worried about the cash in our pocket more, but that means we're worried about controlling inflation, unemployment and economic growth, all of which we rely on the automotive industry, in large part, to support, given it's a huge employer and investor in the UK (most of which is predicated on the 2030 deadline). How does the UK now convince a global car brand to invest in manufacturing here, or a battery giant to set up a gigafactory here, so that we don’t face massive tariffs on cars made here when it comes to exporting them (under the Rules of Origin legislation, a car must have at least 50 per cent of its parts manufactured in the country it’s being exported from or it faces export tariffs)? Why should any company create an investment strategy committed to the UK when nothing is certain and there are no guarantees? Ford has committed £340m to building vehicles in the UK, based on the 2030 cut-off date. Jaguar Land Rover has invested £4bn in Gravity, a battery plant in Somerset based on a zero-emissions future in the UK. The industry was told to meet Government and global policy targets on electric cars. It was a difficult challenge but car brands rose to meet it by swapping out entire powertrains and architecture of their cars. Now they’ve been undermined by a Conservative Government worried, not about the planet, but about the populist vote. Rishi Sunak should take a leaf out of of Sadiq Khan’s book: facing a huge public backlash against the expansion of the ULEZ, London’s mayor stuck to his principles and went ahead. Whether you agree with him or not, leadership based on principles sounds more appealing to me than leadership based on fear. Why now would any consumer go electric? They’ve just been given another decade to consider the matter. Maybe Sunak and his Transport Select Committee can go explain that to the polar bears whose habitat is disappearing, quite literally, from under their feet. And for those cynics who say electric cars aren’t that green anyway? Well we are well underway to making them greener, with the disappearance of cobalt, the opening up of domestic lithium mining and salination, solid-state batteries, the expansion of solar and wind energy to power plants, more eco-friendly tyres, shallow mining and the ability to repair, remanufacture and recycle battery cells. But if we don’t buy the cars in the first place, how do you suppose we continue to work on these improvements? From the magic money tree? Aligning our targets with other countries isn’t a proud thing: Germany bowed to pressure from its very powerful automotive lobby, and we should be leading the way. Yes, going green will cost consumers more, but that’s the price of ethically bred chickens and fish. Maybe cars and their fuel should cost us more so we don’t drive a mile to drop the kids at school and let the engine idle. Let’s be utterly clear to every consumer out there: there’s a price to be paid for the catastrophic damage our species has wrought. Voting in Governments who say that consumers can escape financial pain is a sure-fire path to our destruction.