In Depth

Why road transport emissions are still climbing despite electric car boom

Campaigners call for curb on car use in light of greenhouse gases increase

Exhaust emissions from UK road traffic has increased since 1990 despite the motoring industry’s push towards cleaner vehicles, a government study has found. 

A report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) claims that greenhouse gases, consisting primarily of carbon dioxide emissions, have risen by 6% over the past three decades, The Guardian says. 

Emissions peaked in 2007 before trailing off as road traffic decreased during the financial crisis, the newspaper reports. However, greenhouse gases have “steadily risen” since 2013 to over 118 million tonnes in 2017 - more than a fifth of the UK’s total emissions. 

The report also indicates that people are more reliant on private road transport than ever before. Last year, total traffic rates peaked at 328 billion miles per year, some 75 billion miles more than in 1990.

Cleaner vehicles don’t offset traffic growth

Although car manufacturers have launched cleaner, more fuel-efficient models over the past three decades, environmental news site BusinessGreen claims that this does not offset the growth in total traffic. 

“Only a tiny fraction of cars on UK roads last year were ‘ultra low emission vehicles’, mostly electric or hybrid cars,” the site says. 

That’s not to say the segment isn’t on the rise. Motoring Research states that 3,147 “fully electric” cars were registered in August alone, which eclipsed the 659 during the same period a year ago. 

However, Autocar says that the 17,393 battery-electric cars sold so far in 2019 account for just 1.1% of the market, with hybrid models taking a 4% share and plug-in hybrid vehicles 1.2%. 

Still, the ONS states that overall carbon emissions have increased at a far slower rate compared to traffic growth thanks to stricter limits on exhaust gases.

What’s been the response?

Campaigners believe the report shows that car use has to be “curbed”, the Guardian says, in spite of the growing number of zero-emission vehicles on public roads.

“Admittedly there has been some progress but the ever-increasing number of car miles is still locking us in to a high-carbon future, as well as causing health-damaging air pollution,” said Jenny Bates, a campaigner at the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

“The only way to stop transport from leading us to further climate breakdown is to drastically cut the miles travelled by car,” she said. “Cleaner options such as bicycles, buses and trains need to be made more accessible and more affordable.”

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi, meanwhile, hailed “record high” EV sales, while reiterating the Government’s commitment for “all new cars and vans to be effectively zero emission by 2040”.

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