Clare Wenner: No need to go electric to slash motor emissions

Leeds is one of the most polluted cities in the UK.
Leeds is one of the most polluted cities in the UK.
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YOU could be forgiven for thinking that electric cars are a magic bullet for addressing everything from air quality right through to climate change.

Last month, the Government announced that an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will be introduced to encourage the use of electric vehicles, with the aim that ‘almost every car and van will be zero-emission by 2050’.

It follows a £100m scheme launched in London last year to encourage greater use of electric vehicles. And just this week, electric car maker Tesla launched its new Model 3 to a huge amount of hype.

So does this spell the end of the internal combustion engine on Yorkshire roads?

The reality is that, while demand for electric vehicles is steadily rising, albeit from a very low base, claims that they will represent the majority of transport vehicles in the next 10 years are likely to be over-optimistic.

Latest figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) revealed that just 4,444 electric vehicles were registered in June versus 129,169 petrol vehicles. In short, it doesn’t look like the majority of Brits will be giving up their petrol-powered vehicles anytime soon, particularly when you consider that the average life of a car is 14 years. And even if they did, there are infrastructure issues and concerns that the National Grid would currently struggle to support the mass scale use of electric vehicles.

There is no doubt that electric vehicles have a key role to play in decarbonising transport, and it’s important that the Government, car manufacturers and organisations such as the Renewable Energy Association continue to fund and support this important technology.

However, we need to keep a sense of perspective here and we shouldn’t expect to see them become the mainstream vehicle of choice in the near future. It’ll take time.

Unfortunately, however, time is something the Government doesn’t have when it comes to cleaning up our air. Around 40 million people in the UK are living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution, and WHO figures released earlier this year revealed people in Britain are more likely to die from dirty air than those living in some other comparable countries.

Leeds has been found to be one of the worst cities in the UK for air pollution levels, with recent research by environmental campaign group Global Action Plan revealing that air pollution costs Leeds more than obesity.

According to the Government’s own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, at present the transport sector represents a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions, higher than any other sector. Clearly the Government is right to focus on decarbonising transport. But if electric vehicles aren’t the answer in the short term, what is?

Frustratingly, the answer is staring the Government in the face and has been for some time.

With petrol registrations on the up and only expected to rise further in light of the current negative headlines connected to diesel, cleaning up petrol has to be a priority. So it’s disappointing that the Government appears to be hesitating on introducing E10, which contains five per cent less fossil fuel than current petrol.

Already available and popular across Europe, North America and Australasia, E10, which contains 10 per cent of the renewable transport fuel bioethanol, would be 
the emissions equivalent of removing 700,000 vehicles from UK roads. To put that in perspective, that volume of vehicles is equivalent to a traffic jam stretching from London to Moscow.

Furthermore, it requires no consumer behavioural change and, since 2016, it has been the optimal reference fuel for all new cars, meaning any car made since then actually runs best with E10 in it. Indeed, by 2020, 99 per cent of cars on the road will be warrantied to run on E10 according to the SMMT.

Not only does E10 have unquestionable environmental benefits, but it would also deliver huge economic benefits, particularly in the Yorkshire and Humber region where Vivergo Fuels, the UK’s biggest bioethanol producer, is based. Vivergo, which represents a £350m investment into the region, has already created over 3,000 jobs directly and indirectly in the UK, contributing £600m to the UK economy.

There’s no doubt that E10 represents one of the quickest, easiest and most cost-effective ways of decarbonising transport and tackling air pollution, as well as an effective means of delivering much needed certainty to the bioethanol industry, farmers and industry.

However, the Government has failed to act for several years and is procrastinating on a number 
of important policies.

Such time wasting is unfathomable and the UK is now in real danger of missing legally binding targets relating to renewable transport fuels and air quality, which could prove costly.

The new Minister in charge of transport and the environment at the Department for Transport, Jesse Norman, has a real chance now to make an immediate difference to both combatting climate change and air pollution.

The solutions are there. But is the political will to implement them?

Clare Wenner is Head of Renewable Transport Fuels at the Renewable Energy Association.