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Electric cars’ best ever year is a tipping point for green transport

An electric car at the BMW plant near Oxford

An electric car at the BMW plant near Oxford, UK

TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Fossil fuel-powered cars aren’t yet consigned to the scrapheap, but they are fast travelling down a one-way road towards it.

The pandemic triggered dire new car sales in the UK, which fell by 29 per cent back to levels seen in 1992, figures published yesterday show. Yet sales of new, fully electric cars bucked the trend, rocketing by almost 186 per cent to more than 108,000.

That may seem like a drop in the traffic jam when you consider more than 900,000 petrol ones were sold over the same period, but just look at the rate of change. In the UK, more electric cars were sold last year than in the previous decade.

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Motorists, like progressive leaders and car makers, have woken up to the fact that petrol and diesel cars are on the way out, destined to follow incandescent lightbulbs into history. It isn’t just the UK: the boom is happening across Europe. In Norway, long a pioneer of carrots and sticks to wean people off petrol and diesel, electric models overtook fossil fuels ones for the first time in 2020.

These tipping points matter. Transport has eclipsed energy to become the biggest carbon emitter in the UK, along with many other countries. We need this electric boom if we are to stand any chance of avoiding climate change’s most devastating effects. Toxic traffic also harms and kills us in the short term: witness the inquest last month that found air pollution played a role in a 9 year-old girl’s death.

Why now? Some of it is down to specific policies in individual countries. The UK’s numbers were turbocharged by the government allowing firms to pay no company car tax from April 2020 to April 2021, compared with the 20 to 37 per cent charged on petrol and diesel cars. Most of the plug-in cars sold last year were company cars.

It is also about growing choice. More new electrified models are due in the UK this year than new petrol or diesel ones, though that does include plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which run a short distance on battery before a combustion engine kicks in. Strikingly, the UK’s best-selling car last December wasn’t a Volkswagen Golf or a Ford Fiesta, but the electric Tesla Model 3, which starts at £40,490.

Dieselgate – the revelation that many Volkswagen cars had been equipped with devices that let them cheat tailpipe emissions tests – and fears over diesel cars being charged to enter towns and cities have already hastened their demise. Recent government pledges to ban new petrol and diesel car sales, by 2030 in the UK’s case, signal to buyers that petrol is heading downhill too. New air pollution charging zones, such as London’s expanded Ultra Low Emission Zone introduced in October, will speed things up further.

All this is with electric cars that use old-fashioned lithium-ion batteries, before any of the advances in charging speed and driving range promised by breakthroughs from new technologies, such as solid state batteries.

Yes, there are still bumps in the road to overcome. The number and speed of public chargers needs to increase. Cars need to be charged at smart times of day to avoid unnecessary costs for energy networks (and ultimately the consumers who pay for them). However, none of the challenges are insurmountable.

Of course, as cycling and walking advocates will rightly point out, electric versions don’t solve all of the problems that cars bring. They still generate air pollution from tyre particles and the road dust they throw up, and we have no techno-fix for that. So we need to get out of our cars too, though – as my colleague Graham Lawton has written – that isn’t always easy. Yet given last year’s torrent of bad news, 2020 marking the beginning of the end for fossil fuel cars is a moment worth celebrating.

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