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Emissions from new cars reach record low in the UK

Emissions from new cars reach record low in the UK


They need to drop lower

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A charging cable is pictured plugged into a Volvo electric vehicle (EV), parked in a parking bay reserved for electric vehicles, in London on November 18, 2020.
Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Electric and hybrid vehicles drove emissions from new cars in the UK down to a record low in 2021, according to new data from a local industry group. But more investments in charging stations and public transport are needed for the UK to meet its goal of cutting emissions by 78 percent by 2035.

Average emissions for new cars fell by more than 11 percent to about 120 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven last year, according to UK trade association Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). That means drivers turning to EVs are helping to shrink emissions from the UK’s biggest source of pollution. Transportation — mostly on roads — pumps out more than a quarter of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The UK’s biggest source of pollution

Zooming out, however, private vehicle sales jumped 64 percent this January compared to January 2021. While sales haven’t yet rebounded to what they were before the pandemic curbed commutes, more cars on the road still means more pollution since a majority of vehicles are still gas-guzzling. Even after the number of battery electric vehicle sales more than doubled year on year in January 2022, they still only made up 12.5 percent of new cars registered in the UK that month.

Together with plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, some 20 percent of January new car sales can plug into the grid, which the UK is working to decarbonize. While SMMT expects new EV and hybrid sales to keep growing rapidly this year, consumers’ concerns about available charging stations are still a roadblock slowing down EV adoption, the trade group says. The UK plans to ban the sale of internal combustion vehicles from 2030 and hybrid cars from 2035.

Experts say putting more EVs on the road shouldn’t be the only way we address transportation’s contribution to the climate crisis. We also need to reduce the number of cars on the roads overall by designing more walkable cities and making public transportation more robust. Unfortunately, UK roads got significantly more congested with motor vehicle traffic between 1990 and 2019 — part of the reason emissions from transportation haven’t changed much overall despite gains in fuel efficiency and the growing popularity of electric vehicles.

“There is still a mountain to climb”

“There is still a mountain to climb to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions from cars. The 90,000 internal combustion engines that rolled off forecourts this month will continue to pollute and hit motorists in their pockets for another 14 years, on average,” Ben Nelmes, head of policy and research at thinktank New AutoMotive, told The Guardian.

While the UK has a long way to go to get rid of planet-heating pollution from cars, much of the world is even further behind. Globally, less than 5 percent of passenger car sales were electric or hybrid vehicles in 2020. And while pollution from transport eased in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, around the world, emissions have already begun to rebound.