Could the UK really lead the world in electric vehicles?

Vroom, vroom. Image: Getty.

Amidst a gloomy series of announcements pointing to car manufacturers pulling out of the UK, there are still some signs that the future could be bright for the UK’s automotive industry.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has announced it will invest hundreds of millions of pounds in electric vehicle (EV) production at its Castle Bromwich plant in the Midlands, helping to secure 2,700 jobs. The previous government had been eager to show its support, handing a £500m loan guarantee to JLR, announcing it will make charging points mandatory in new homes and cutting company car tax for EVs from 2020. In his first address to Parliament as new prime minister, Boris Johnson emphasised his vision for the UK as “the home of electric vehicles”.

But how realistic is this grand ambition? The UK still only attracts a small fraction of the new global investment in electric car manufacturing. China, Germany and the US are getting the lion’s share, with car makers’ planned investments in these countries reaching a total of over $240bn. The domestic EV market lags behind other EU countries. And, while Johnson also claims that the UK is “leading the world in battery technology”, there are no plans for large scale domestic battery manufacturing facilities, with production capacity in Europe instead expected to reach 130 GWh by 2025.

Unless this changes, the global auto industry will continue to invest elsewhere and the UK will miss its chance to claim a major stake in this industry – not to mention the benefits of cleaner air and real progress in cutting carbon from the largest emitting sector in the UK.

Government action in the following three areas could change this picture, however.

First, manufacturers need more certainty about the future market before they will invest. While Brexit will inevitably play a role, upping the domestic demand by bringing forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles to 2030, and providing incentives for corporate fleets and private individuals to go electric, including by expanding charging infrastructure, would go a long way to strengthening the home market.

In the uncertainty of the post-Brexit world, it could be a great trade proposition too. Demand for electric vehicles in the EU could reach 12 million vehicles by 2030, which means the UK could capitalise on the growing European market for its car exports and help address the UK’s automotive trade deficit at the same time.


Second, manufacturing electric vehicle batteries requires critical raw materials, like cobalt. The considerable environmental and human costs of mining these materials could lead to supply disruptions, potentially creating barriers to the industry’s growth.

Instead, a system for battery reuse and recycling would mean the UK could provide a ready source to meet half of its cobalt demand in 2035 from domestically used batteries. For this to happen, the government needs to put policies in place that encourage domestic battery manufacturing and reprocessing, including revising the producer responsibility system for EV batteries to improve design, reuse and recycling.

Third, firms investing in electric vehicles could make profits in associated services, and particularly those enabled by new digital technology. For example, electric vehicles could be an infrastructure asset to support the energy system: batteries from idle cars can be deployed for balancing on local energy networks, limiting the need for network reinforcement and enabling further integration of renewables in the power system. This would enable UK firms to access new revenue streams beyond car sales, strengthening their profitability, and maximise the benefits of the transition to electric vehicles for UK citizens.

It is estimated that smart charging and vehicle to grid technology (which allows cars to provide power from the battery back into the grid), could save the energy system in Great Britain up to £270m per year by 2030 in avoided distribution network upgrades and reduced peak energy demand. To realise these opportunities, Ofgem should ensure the ongoing network charging and energy retail market reviews enable better use of EV batteries as part of a smart energy system.

China, Norway and EU countries, such as the Netherlands, have already set high ambitions for zero emissions vehicles. If Boris Johnson is serious about making the UK the “home of electric vehicles”, “powered by British-made battery technology”, his new government needs to act quickly, before it misses the chance.

Caterina Brandmayr is senior policy analyst at the Green Alliance.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.