Monday, 17 September 2007

Could the UK ban the sale of Petrol Cars by 2040?

It's Party Conference Time again, and this year all the major parties are vying to appear greener than each other, especially when it comes to Climate Change. This is probably a Good Thing, as it is throwing out some interesting ideas.

Today it's the turn of the Liberal Democrats. Chris Huhne, their environment spokesperson has come up with two eye-catching ideas about private cars as part of a ten-point plan to achieve a carbon-neutral Britain by 2050:

  • Raise the annual road tax on the worst gas guzzlers to £2,000 a year
  • Ban the sale of Petrol Cars from 2040

Neither of these are likely to happen, as the LibDems are unlikely to form the next Government, or even one by 2040. But they are worth a little consideration.

At first sight, the Road Tax one appears easier to implement. The UK wouldn't need the approval of Brussels, unlike (say) introducing a ban or an emissions cap. And by applying it only to newly manufactured cars, it cannot be accused of penalising poorer consumers who have bought second hand has guzzlers.

However there is one possible downside. Some people — mainly company car drivers — would still choose these gas guzzlers, in the knowledge that they (or their employer) could afford this road tax bill. But the second hand value of such a vehicle would plummet, and many would be become worthless (and hence scrapped or exported to other countries with a less punitive tax regime) whilst still quite new. If they were scrapped, this would be a shocking waste of the embodied energy in the gas-guzzler; if exported it is likely to be to a country with lower petrol taxes, and would lead to them driving a higher mileage than if retained in the UK. Ultimately the only way to prevent new gas-guzzlers appearing on Britain's road is through legislation, restricting the sale of vehicles with high CO2 emissions and this requires concerted European action. The current voluntary agreement to reach 120g/km emissions is not working; the UK Government (of whatever colour) should put pressure on Brussels and act unilaterally in support of the "voluntary" targets to ensure they are met.

The other new idea is to require all cars sold to be zero-carbon by 2040. This appears at first to be even more radical, as at present there are only a handful of ZEVs on sale — mainly small electric vehicles. But let's look at this from a historical perspective and suppose that in 1935 someone had said to the bigwigs at the LNER, GWR1 et alia that within 33 years there would be no steam trains running on Britain's main line railways. I think that would have been received with guffaws of incomprehension: after the companies were hard at work refining their designs to create ever better and faster steam engines. At the LNER, Sir Nigel Gresley had just launched his streamlined Pacifics and Silver Link had set a new world speed record of 112mph in September, and over at the Great Western the Castles and Kings were setting standards for efficiency and reliability. Surely steam would be the principal motive power for at least another 50 years, if not more?

So 33 years is still quite a long time in transport development. I see no reason to doubt our ability to meet the LibDems' target. And if the White House is serious about using technology as the "fix" for Climate Change, then it makes the 2040 zero-carbon cars target look positively easy.

1London & North Eastern Railway and the Great Western Railway; two of the Big 4 pre-nationalisation rail groupings. Every schoolboy still knows (or should know) that Mallard holds the World Steam Speed record, at 126mph, but this wasn't set until 1938.