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The Government’s Road to Zero still isn’t entirely clear

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The Road to Zero Emissions

Last year, you may remember, the Government made a firm promise as part of its Air Quality Plan: a total ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040. And the same document also expressed a related desire: for almost every car and van on roads to be zero-emission by 2050.

 The Air Quality Plan contained some policies that will help to bring about this greener future, such as the expansion of Clean Air Zones around the country. But, as we said at the time, ‘quite a bit remains to be seen’ – and the Government seemed to agree. They promised, as part of their subsequent Clean Growth Strategy, that a supplementary ‘long term strategy for the UK’s transition to zero road vehicle emissions’ would be published in March of this year, to fill in some of the blanks.

 That strategy wasn’t published in March – it was actually published  on 9 July, under the title The Road to Zero. It didn’t receive as much attention as it might have, not least because the dominance of the Brexit negotiations But it is nonetheless a document that ought to interest fleets and their drivers.

Does the strategy set the right course for the future? 

Let’s start with the main question: does The Road to Zero really set out a strategy for transitioning the UK’s road vehicles to zero emissions by 2050?

The answer is a little mixed. On the positive side, The Road to Zero certainly contains some admirable ideals. The Government has, for example, backed up its 2040 pledge with a new, intermediary ambition for up to 70% of new car sales to be ultra-low emission by 2030, and up to 40% of new van sales.   

And The Road to Zero also features some policies to help deliver on this ambition. In particular, it focuses on the charging infrastructure that’s necessary for electric vehicles. £400 million has been earmarked for the launch of the Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund. There’s a policy to ensure that all new homes are built with charge points, ‘where appropriate’. And the grants available through the Workplace Charging Scheme have been raised – among other measures.

It’s not just electric infrastructure. The Government is also working on the vehicle side of things, including by continuing the Plug-in Car Grant until at least 2020, with the current rates maintained until at least October 2018.

Are these ambitions and policies enough? Whilst any support for electric vehicles is certainly welcome, it’s worth noting that some of the biggest measures highlighted in The Road to Zero aren’t actually new – the £400 Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund, for instance, was announced in last year’s Autumn Budget.

The Road to Zero also fails to answer all of the questions surrounding the promise that inspired it in the first place: the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. It states that new vehicles sold from that point should be ‘effectively zero emission’ – but what does ‘effectively’ mean? Hybrids will almost certainly be allowed under this regime, but what type of hybrids? And will they have to have a minimum zero-emission range? The answers are not yet clear, which creates some uncertainty for fleets and individual drivers as they invest in new technologies.

Then there’s the ‘Progress Review’ that has been penciled in for 2025. This is probably a wise decision, given that situations change and politicians should react to them, but it does still add to the uncertainties of The Road to Zero. What if the Government decides to bring forward its 2040 target, if green motoring is moving faster than expected? How long will fleets have to react then?

The Road to Zero asks us to ‘wait and see’ in another crucial area. It observes that the Government is ‘working with industry to undertake further testing of the latest gas trucks; the test results will be used to inform decisions on future government policy and support for the use of natural gas in road transport.’

This suggests that there are even more policies coming – but, in this case, we won’t complain about the uncertainty created in the meantime. Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions has long argued, including in our Future of Fuel report from last year, that electricity isn’t the only alternative fuel, and that the Government should consider other options, such as gas, that could be more suitable for particular situations.

Judging by The Road to Zero, it appears that those options are now getting the consideration they deserve.

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