The U.K. Just Punted a Key EV Target. It Will Happen Again.
The EV transition is facing a reality check. Can the planet afford it?
Once, it seemed like a major coup d’etat in the global war on carbon emissions: The United Kingdom, even under the conservative leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the time, announced in 2020 that it was 10 years away from banning the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars. In other words, any new cars sold in 2030 and beyond — and 1.6 million of them were purchased last year — would need to be zero-emission vehicles, likely electric cars but also some hydrogen cars as well.
Fast forward a bit to a year that’s seen more uneven EV adoption than many anticipated, a situation exacerbated by a shaky post-pandemic global economy. Now, the British government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hits reverse: Did we say 2030? Oh, we mean 2035 instead.
Sunak announced this week that the UK will, in his words, “ease the transition to electric vehicles,” allowing sales of new internal combustion cars until 2035. His decision is a disappointing one for climate reasons and, allegedly, even for some automakers hinging big hopes and potentially trillions of dollars on transitioning to EVs. (More on that later.) But the bigger question is, is this rollback just the start of a bigger trend?
Unfortunately, it probably is. Because what we’re finding with EVs is that saying you’re going to do something is a lot easier than actually doing it.
Sunak’s decision quickly outraged scientists and green groups, especially since it came during Climate Week, a time when leaders from all over the world (including Prince William) gathered in New York to discuss how to mitigate the greatest crisis of our lifetimes. It even angered some drivers in the U.K., according to The Guardian; people who were counting on a more robust used EV market and now worry about a slower rollout for public charging.
Transparently, I’m no expert on the U.K.’s climate politics. My own country gives me plenty of headaches on that front, thanks very much. But Sunak’s points aren’t entirely unreasonable here. He blames the high cost of EVs and fears an effectively all-electric new car market will put an undue financial burden on ordinary people already squeezed by inflation, high energy costs, and an uncertain economy. “We seem to have defaulted to an approach which will impose unacceptable costs on hard-pressed British families,” Sunak said in his speech this week. And he’s not wrong; as is the case in the U.S., EVs are still considerably more expensive than internal combustion cars, and Britain has its challenges with a woefully inadequate and unreliable charging infrastructure.
I’ll also give Sunak, who like Johnson is a conservative, some credit for actually admitting that climate change is an existential problem. “No one can watch the floods in Libya or the extreme heat in Europe this summer, and doubt that it is real and happening,” he said in his remarks this week, while touting Britain’s gains in reducing carbon and fighting pollution. That’s more than we get here in America, where our conservatives can barely admit that human-driven global warming is real — let alone say we need to do anything about it. (The bar is extraordinarily low over here!) Finally, Sunak is also not entirely off-course when he says the 2035 target aligns with what Germany, Canada, Sweden, and U.S. states like New York and California are planning too.
But that’s about as magnanimous as I’m willing to be here with Sunak’s arbitrary-seeming decision. It’s extremely unclear what Sunak expects to happen by giving this an extra five years, except further delay solving some of the very problems he describes here; after all, more EVs on the road and more EV production in Britain (thanks to increased demand) will lower prices the same as any consumer product, and push the charging infrastructure forward, too. Any improvements on those fronts just lost a sense of urgency that could’ve made them happen sooner.
Then there’s the domino effect problem. At worst, this move could provide ammunition for those governments — and car companies, and energy providers, and anyone else crucial to this transition — to slow-walk a move to zero-emission transportation.
If the U.K. can move its target date back, why wouldn’t Germany, which is also fretting about what this shift means for its ultra-important car industry? Why wouldn’t New York or California, which are struggling in similar ways with high costs of living, housing affordability, and the challenge of building out vast and reliable charging networks? (Yes, even California isn’t good enough there yet.)
And is five years “enough” to stave off intense EV competition from China? What does “enough” even mean in that context? Moving the targets, as Sunak has done, feels like a step away from what was once such an ambitious move for the United Kingdom — a country that, in spite of all of these challenges, is seeing fast and record EV growth this year; it could be as high as 23% of the market in 2024, about twice what America’s tracking for. It’s making progress on the electric front, so why kneecap that progress now?
Then there are the automakers themselves; the phrase “trust, but verify” always comes to mind when I hear about their commitments to going all-electric. Not all of them are setting firm dates to swear off internal combustion. But most, if not all, are making aggressive and enormous investments into EVs and battery plants; any delays or uneven regulations could throw a wrench into those plans, leading them to invest a ton of money into cars people may not want to buy.
Some of them even hit back at Sunak’s decision, including officials from Kia and Volkswagen; "Our business needs three things from the U.K. government: ambition, commitment, and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three," Ford U.K. Chair Lisa Brankin said. It could also be equally troublesome for the U.K.’s perpetually beleaguered auto industry. Just last week, Mini’s parent company BMW announced a major investment to make the brand fully electric and keep production British instead of Chinese — all by 2030, too. Mini’s future finally seemed secure after years of uncertainty between Brexit and the decline of small car sales; now it gets hit by a curve ball (or whatever soccer, cricket or rugby equivalent fits best) from its own government that will torpedo demand for all those new EVs for years to come.
At the same time, many automakers are hedging their bets here too, even if they won’t admit it openly. Ultimately, their duty is to shareholders, not the planet. In the U.S., Ford is dialing back some of its aggressive EV targets and focusing a little more on hybrid cars amid uneven electric adoption and production troubles this year. General Motors has committed to going all-electric eventually, but it’s also coming out with a new gasoline V8 to power its next generation of big trucks and SUVs, which drive basically all of its profits. (They’re not even hybrid engines.) And other automakers would rather rely on a network of parts suppliers, factories and dealers they’ve set up over a century to sell gas cars than make an electric pivot they won’t all survive.
In other words, give them an excuse — say, pushing back internal combustion bans — and they may not do it at all. I could easily see a reality where a car company like GM, which has committed to going all-electric by 2035, says it’s going to be 2040 now. And then 2045. And then, “Look at all these efficient gasoline cars we have now!” or “But have you seen the new Escalade? We’re throwing in the air filtration system as standard — massaging seats, too!” Like I said: trust, but verify.
In short, I fear the British government’s decision this week will lead other governments and their leaders to dial back some of their most aggressive climate commitments, even if they take this challenge more seriously than much of America does. It’s like a crack in a dam: It sometimes starts with just a few small ones right before the flood happens. After all, even the ultra-tough European Union left the door open to internal combustion sales past 2035, provided they run on deeply unproven “e-fuels.”
Sunak is right when he says this will be a difficult transition to zero-emission cars — which will almost certainly be EVs and not other types of vehicles in the near term. It’s hard and expensive. The automakers probably also hate it, deep down, because it’s hard and expensive. And no one should believe the world can “fix” climate change with EVs, especially when they’re $60,000 SUVs.
But moving to zero-emission cars is about laying the long-term groundwork for a world where automotive transportation creates vastly less pollution than it does now. For the United Kingdom, that goal just moved five more years down the road. Let’s hope it doesn’t move any further.