Bright Spark

IS Progress towards net zero stalling?

How’s the UK doing when it comes to cleaning up its economy? Answering that question at regular intervals is the job of an official body that was set up under the Climate Change Act of 2008. The Climate Change Committee, as it is called, monitors and reports on our progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change. Its most recent report, released towards the end of June, made pretty grim reading. Almost every aspect of the UK’s progress in working towards net zero was criticised, from the slow adoption of wind and solar, to the failure to upgrade power grids sufficiently quickly. Not enough low carbon heating systems are going into our homes, and when it comes to home insulation, we’re lagging behind on our lagging – did you see what I did there?

  According to the committee, in 2022, surface transport was the biggest-emitting sector in the UK, accounting for 23% of the total. Emissions remain high, and the committee said that the government wasn’t doing enough to discourage the use of private vehicles, or to encourage the use of public transport. When it came to cars, the committee honed in on one issue in particular that could cause some headaches. It cited new evidence that plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) are making a far lower contribution to reducing carbon emissions than had previously been assumed – some three to five times less, in fact – and called for a prioritisation of pure electric cars over PHEVs. At the moment, while most new cars with internal combustion engines will be banned from sale after 2030, there is an exemption for PHEVs that allows them to be sold until 2035, as long as they provide ‘significant zero emission capability’. The Climate Change Committee is now questioning whether sales of new PHEVs should be allowed at all between 2030 and 2035, or failing an outright ban, whether an ‘ambitious definition’ should be imposed in assessing whether a given plug-in hybrid meets the ‘significant zero emission capability’ requirement.

  And this is where the urgency of dealing with climate change clashes with the practicality of carrying out the switchover. While the Climate Change Committee is looking for more stringent conditions and an accelerated adoption of EVs, every other pressure in the system is pointing to a relaxation of the rules and a degree of slippage in the timetable. While pure EVs are taking an increasing share of the market every year, there are still doubts about whether the rate of progress is enough to squeeze out sales of fossil-fuelled cars altogether by 2030. And you can hardly go online without reading some story about the slow progress in rolling out of EV charging facilities. Meanwhile, the European motor industry has had some success in opening up a continuing future for internal combustion engines as long as they use sustainable e-fuels, softening the impact of the changeover.

  Any acceleration of the switchover would also pose a problem for the motor industry in the UK, which is already struggling to attract enough battery-making capacity to sustain itself at its current size after the switch to EVs – a problem set to be exacerbated by local content rules that could make exports of British EVs with imported batteries to the EU more difficult. More specifically, any tightening in the timetable for phasing out PHEVs, or a more demanding requirement for the ‘electric’ components in hybrid powertrains as far as the 2030 to 2035 period is concerned, would pose a particular challenge for Toyota’s UK manufacturing activities, which are focused on hybrid models.

  That said, Toyota’s position on the switchover seems to be evolving. Over twenty years ago, Toyota was an early leader in the electrification process with its first hybrids, and the company later continued to argue for hybrid technology, alongside hydrogen-powered vehicles, as part of the long-term solution, even after rivals like Nissan had started to bet heavily on pure EVs. More recently, though, Toyota has stepped up its efforts in electric, too. In 2021 it set out a future model programme featuring thirty EVs, and in July it claimed a breakthrough in battery technology; new solid-state batteries that may be with us in just a few years and could be half the weight, size, and cost of today’s equivalents. That sounds great for the long-term prospects for electric, but may not help the switchover much in the here and now if lots of buyers delay buying an EV so that they can benefit from the new technology.

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