The recent announcement by the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak concerning the government’s new approach to the Net Zero target was replete with references to the need for a change in politics and the need for an honest, democratic, national debate on how the United Kingdom can rise to this challenge. These words were swiftly followed by his announcement that he had decided to change the current policies to ensure this… all of which of course, had occurred without any sort of debate at all!!
Yet leaving aside (what to me appears to me to be) the disingenuous, misrepresentative nature of his claims – I find myself in agreement with him on one point: that we actually do need to have a debate about this, so that all the decisions that are being made and the directions that are being taken can be laid bare for all.
Let’s take the example of electric cars, a concept which possibly on the face of it is relatively easy to grasp. No new cars sold after date X with internal combustion engines. Prior to the announcement from Rishi Sunak, the policy involved a ban on sales of fully internal combustion new cars by 2030, and ban on all non-zero emissions exhaust vehicles by 2035 (this includes plug-in hybrids).
As background, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicates that in mid-2021 the population of the UK was 67 million, of which 59 million resided in England & Wales. The government census of 2021 shows that of those in England & Wales, 29% were under the age of 25. From which it is possible to conclude that around 40 million people were eligible to drive in England & Wales.
At the end of 2021 there were some 32 million passenger cars registered to drive on UK roads (of which 1.6 million were new registrations: new cars that year). Even allowing for the UK residents outside of England & Wales (~8 million) this staggering statistic allows that in the UK there is a car for at least every 2 individuals of driving age… possibly as much as 1 car for every 1.6 people!!
Between 2003 & 2020, there was an average of 2 million New Car registrations per year… following which the number dropped to around 1.6 million. Even if we halve the number of New Registrations (to allow for households not wishing or being able to purchase a new vehicle), we still face the prospect of a staggering additional 750,000 new electric vehicles every year (following this ban) each of which need to plug-in somewhere (present sales are half of this).
As of April this year, the government calculates that there are upwards of 40,000 public charging stations in the UK – an increase from January of 3,000 (I cannot find any statistics for domestic installations). So where exactly are these cars going to plug-in?
Even a quick glimpse at areas of high population-density in the UK will show that domestically there is a deficiency of parking spaces for all cars, let alone spaces with access to a charging point… charging times themselves are variable (based on charger speed/ battery capacity); figures range from 30m to 12 hours for a full charge. Of course, this may be reduced with higher-capacity chargers, or of course increased with higher-capacity batteries. In all honesty, it doesn’t really matter in this debate – the point here is that any policy that involves the changing of technology in an item so ubiquitous as a car must include consideration for the knock-on effects in society. Sure, if I have a driveway, and I can afford to install a charging unit (since the cars cannot be simply plugged into the mains supply) then I’m OK. However what should be done for the 26% of UK homes without off-street parking? Or the 13% that have parking only in a communal plot? Some homes may only have one space, but two cars… What about mid-journey charging?
Please don’t misunderstand, this is not an argument against electric cars and in favour of internal combustion – be that petrol, diesel or hydrogen… what I am trying to illustrate is the depth of societal change needed – both in terms of culture and infrastructure – for this aspect of Net Zero policy to be successful. (And this is only one of the aspects that we need to consider!!)
Any policy of this nature must surely address the cultural impact alongside the technological/ regulatory impact. These policies should be accompanied with comprehensive public transport, infrastructure, domestic use, public access policies, perhaps even a policy which limits the quite frankly, stupid number of vehicles in production/ use in our society. (Yes, I do have a car, so you can count me in amongst those who need to have a good look at themselves and the way they live their lives.)
So back to my point: we definitely should hold a debate on this. We need a frank discussion on how our lives will be impacted by these changes, and how the government can support us in coping with such changes. We need to understand the depth of the impact of these life-changing implications: from how we go to work every day, to how we travel for leisure. I do not see how these issues can be discussed and how solutions can be formulated without the direct inclusion of those who will have to live with this change. These are not matters that can be decided by the free market, or by the companies who wish to choose hydrogen over electric – these are issues on which society as a whole has to have a say, and on which government needs to lead: if only to lead the debate.
And yes… I appreciate how the ‘democratic debate’ turned out for Brexit… the lies and obfuscations triumphed over reality, nevertheless the one benefit that I can see from Brexit, is that the issues were at least identified; however poorly.
So let’s identify the issues now, let’s discuss how our society will need to change, and let’s find a solution that we can all live with together.