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The government's 2035 target - technological change isn't linear

About a third of all emissions in the UK come from transport. Over half of those emissions are produced by cars and taxis. Buses, lorries, motorbikes and other forms of road transport make up the rest with small percentages attributed to domestic rail, shipping, and aviation (key word, domestic). With the net zero target of 2050 feeling comfortably distant at this point, it appears to be clear why the government's attention seems fixated on accelerating electric vehicle uptake in the medium term.


The media attention surrounding electric vehicles would lead most to believe that they form a larger piece of the pie than the reality. It's alarming to think that there will be a full ban on petrol, diesel, and hybrid car sales by 2035 when 31 million of them were registered in the UK as of 2018. To put that into context, the total number of cars (excluding vans and larger vehicles) is at 31.5 million.

As seen in the chart, the total proportion of cars that are fully electric in the UK is currently little over 0.2%. The blue slither covering hybrid vehicles includes plug in hybrids, however these vehicles still have an internal combustion engine and are therefore included in the government's ban.


Despite the horse and cart still operating at the fringes of society into the 1930s and 40s, the takeover of the combustion engine happened in little more than 15 years, and was the dominant mode of transport in 10. For EVs to gain the majority share of transport over petrol and diesel cars, there will need to be about 30 million registered, that's 1 million per year by 2050 in order to meet the government's net zero carbon target. There were 15,000 registered in 2018, and the best selling EV at 24,000 units sold, is the Nissan Leaf. Still a long way to go. Or is there?


In 1994, there were only one and a half million diesel cars registered in the UK, the vast majority at that time were petrol. Today, there are 12.3 million diesel cars (even with the VW scandal). That's growth of just over 800,000 diesel cars per annum; not quite 1 million, but an interesting comparison happening in half the time.


As car registrations in the UK have increased with population size and affluence (or easier ways to get finance) since the 90s, emissions have actually decreased:


This is due to the majority of cars running on much more efficient engines coupled with hybrid motors. Cars still remain the leading polluters in transport, and transport still remains the leading polluter among UK sectors. EVs cannot solve the pollution issue alone, as we all know, the electricity that powers them must be renewable. The introduction of EVs over a shorter time frame could mean more indirect emissions providing charge to the batteries via the grid.


According to National Grid's scenario analysis, EVs will create an additional 18GW of demand by 2040 assuming majority uptake, that's 30% on top of today's current peak. 11% of future electricity demand will be driven by EVs, or roughly 45TWh per year. That's about half of Finland's total electricity generation. So in short, it's going to create a lot more demand for electricity, which forms part of an overall strategy for the electrification of, well, everything.


And as the story goes, EVs will smart charge, adapt to local distribution network peaks, and operate as decentralised storage devices. This will help the intermittency problem for renewables, too. And if blockchain has any outside chance for involvement, then the power sector will be governed digitally, by decentralised renewables and storage devices, which are ultimately free of emissions. Happy days.


In order for this to all be a success, the UK has to be serious in its commitment. All the way from the vision of a carbon neutral economy, with an upgraded grid system, to an end consumer deciding whether or not to invest their money in an EV. Almost every major car manufacturer has an electric car in their ranks with more affordable options on the way throughout the 2020s. This is encouraging, but even they are pushing back against the government's 5 year forward shift.


It isn't really whether or not the battery will overtake the combustion engine like the combustion engine overtook the horse, because battery powered cars existed then, too. It's more of an electric car push 2.0, but this time around they're part of a global movement to curb emissions and combat climate change, something that's no longer about propulsion, but more about a sustainable future.


Then again, rather ironically, the combustion engine allowed for more sustainable cities by clearing them of horse manure. As The Times put it in 1894, "in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under 9 feet of manure", little did they know a nascent technology at the time would go on to change the structure of society only two decades later.


Our linear brains are often baffled by the exponential change of society. The future is coming faster than we think.

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