Last Updated on 18/07/2022

As you have probably already heard, the UK government recently announced that all new petrol and diesel vehicles, including hybrids, will be banned from sale from 2040 onwards. The key reason given was not climate change but because of public health concerns surrounding air pollution. It follows on from a similar announcement made by the French and Norwegian governments.

There have clearly been efforts to resolutely start delivering on the Paris Climate Accord after President Trump withdrew from the agreement, with multiple countries making major commitments that go beyond what had been pledged in 2015. Norway has arguably the most progressive plan that will phase out sales of fossil-fuel powered vehicles by 2025.

Things are starting to happen in vehicle manufacturing sector too

And from the vehicle manufacturers, we’ve heard from Volvo who announced that from 2019 they will only make electric or hybrid cars; a fully electric version of the Mini is going to be built at BMW’s plant in Cowley, near Oxford. The firm’s German owners BMW said the new model will go into production in 2019 and will be a variant of its three-door hatch model. It expects electric models (which it manufactures at 10 plants across the world) to account between 15% and 25% of sales by 2025; US firm Tesla’s first mass-market electric car, the model 3, has recently be unveiled; and the first manufacturing facility to be built in Britain for more than a decade opened in Ansty, Coventry, in March to produce a new electric London black taxi.

Latest figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show that 59,000 new alternatively fuelled vehicles have been purchased in the UK so far, this year, up 28% over the same period in 2016, amid growing concern about the impact of diesel cars on air quality.

So regardless of the UK’s target of 2040, It may well be that as more car manufacturers announce similar plans, the death of new fossil fuel based new vehicles may happen way before that point.

The two major obstacles to faster take-up of electric vehicles are their relative expense of electric versus their fossil fuel equivalents and their limited reach (typically 100 miles) before re-charge, though Tesla’s Model S 100D extends the range to 335 miles on a full charge. Both challenges will surely be met over time through competition and government pressure. Indeed, Lithium battery prices are expected to drop another 75% by 2030, which will make electric cars, which have far fewer parts than their combustion counterparts, cheaper by 2025, if not sooner.

Watch electric vehicle sales shoot up

The National Grid are predicting that within five years of petrol and diesel vehicles no longer being manufactured, sales of fossil duel based vehicles will drop to zero, and that by 2050 everybody will be driving an electric vehicle.

Too little too late for the planet?

These announcements have stirred up lots of discussions about the impacts on society. Many environmentalists think that this move is too little too late, and that we should be acting much sooner, given that the planet, and its inhabitants, are already suffering.

The Royal College of Physicians claims that air pollution in the UK, from both indoor and outdoor sources, are already responsible for as many as 40,000 premature deaths per year. Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable.

Areeba Hamid, clean air campaigner at Greenpeace, recently told the Guardian: “The High Court was clear that the government must bring down toxic air pollution in the UK in the shortest possible time. This plan is still miles away from that. The government cannot shy away any longer from the issue of diesel cars clogging up and polluting our cities, and must now provide real solutions, not just gimmicks. That means proper clean air zones and funding to support local authorities to tackle illegal and unsafe pollution.”

Air Pollution in 2017 – monitoring NO2 outside a Primary School

As a keen follower of all things sustainable, I am very much in favour of society moving as quickly as possible towards a much-reduced carbon (and other pollutants) world when it comes to transportation. At a local level, in my capacity as a Parent Governor at a local primary school, I was recently involved with a consultancy company called ThinkTravel ( who worked with our local county council to monitor levels of Nitrogen Dioxide directly outside the primary school’s gates, both within term time at morning drop-off times and during school holidays just after the morning rush-hour.

The location is within a quarter of a mile of a town centre in Gloucestershire, England without heavy industry nearby, so one can assume that these figures are much less than in the middle of a large city. It should be noted that the UK has set limit values for Nitrogen Dioxide (based on hourly mean) of 200 ug/m3 not to be exceeded more than 18 times in a year. So thankfully the actual mean is much lower than 200 ug/m3. It would be interesting to see comparable figures for the centre of a large city, such as London.

The indicative results are in the table below, showing the stark increase in Nitrogen Dioxide during term time, when more cars are travelling near the school, dropping off children for school.

Half Term 13/02/17

Nitrogen Dioxide mean (ug/m3) 21.02

Nitrogen Dioxide max (ug/m3) 26.60

Nitrogen Dioxide min (ug/m3) 19.23

Term Time 20/2/17

Nitrogen Dioxide mean (ug/m3) 38.37

Nitrogen Dioxide max (ug/m3) 68.20

Nitrogen Dioxide min (ug/m3) 24.80

The data supports my concerns about air pollution near the school and has further encouraged the school to encourage parents to avoid coming to school by car.

Evidence of worsening air pollution across the UK

There are 81 major roads in 17 towns and cities where urgent action is required (according to Ministers) because they are in breach of EU emissions standards, which are putting people’s health at risk.

A new analysis has found that 48 of the most polluted roads are in London. Other polluted roads can be found in Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham, Southampton, Bristol, Bolton, Manchester, Bury, Coventry, Newcastle, Sheffield, Belfast, Cardiff and Middlesbrough.

Pollution hotspots are mainly found on A-roads, but also include stretches of two motorways – the M4 near London and the M32 in Bristol.

But can we cope with the change in time?

Despite these legitimate concerns that waiting until 2040 is far too slow due to the damage being done, other commentators argue that the UK won’t be ready by then (it starts to sound a bit like Brexit!). Let’s consider the “we won’t be able to cope” argument.

In 2017 only 4% of new car sales are for electric vehicles. Or 1% if you exclude hybrids. Electric vehicle sales will have to start replacing fossil-fuel vehicles at a rate of more than 150,000 cars per year to hit the 2040 target. Expect to see more car manufacturers making similar announcements to Volvo over the next few years, particularly if the governments of the largest markets, United States and China, follow the lead of France and the UK.

That’s a lot of charging points!

It’s probably not going to be such a challenge for the vehicle manufacturing sector to expand the number of electric cars they produce. It’s keeping these electric vehicles on the move which will be the greatest issue.

To switch to 100% electric (no hybrids, remember), the UK will have to massively ramp up the number charging points for this new generation of cars, a huge investment over the next 22 years. Both private and government money will have to flow into providing more charging points in public spaces, as well as residential streets and in office car parks. The UK is going to need thousands of charging points to service tens of millions of electric cars. This is especially so if the current charging speeds aren’t improved; it only takes 2-3 minutes to refuel a petrol or diesel car to drive about 300 miles. However, the average electric car needs 5-6 hours of charge to get enough energy to drive about 100 miles.

Where will the extra renewable power come from?

There is also considerable concern at the national electricity networks’ ability to cope with millions of extra cars being plugged into the grid at the same time. It has been estimated that the UK will need an extra 30 GW of energy, the equivalent of nearly ten Hinkley nuclear power stations to cope with the increased demand on the national grid.

Much of this challenge could be addressed by smart charging at off-peak times, but there will be a need for other solutions like home battery units to store electricity. These are just starting to hit the market now, but will become much bigger news over the coming decade.


The UK government recognises that it can’t just wait for 2040 and it must act now to reduce the risk to public health of air pollution. As part of its strategy it is urging local authorities to first try to reduce emissions by retrofitting the most polluting diesel vehicles, changing road layouts, better sequencing of traffic lights and removing speed humps. However, it concedes that as a last resort councils will be allowed to impose tough restrictions on the most polluting diesel vehicles as soon as 2020 to bring down the levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide emissions. Ministers will have to contribute an extra £255 million to help councils implement their plans, which could come into force as soon as 2020.

So, in summary, the 2040 target is achievable but it is still going to take an enormous amount of effort from all sides to make it happen. In the meantime, we all need to support measures that cut air pollution, otherwise, the most vulnerable in society will continue to suffer, as well as the negative impact on climate change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *