Connie Muir would love to own an electric car. The London-based environmentalist is a prime candidate for a new generation of eco-friendly vehicles. She has checked out the possibilities, but getting behind the wheel of a 'green mobile' is just not viable.
“The road that I live on, there’s no electric charging point. None nearby. I don’t have a driveway. I don’t even have a set parking space outside on the street," she said. That's before she even considers the cost of replacing her old car.
The Friends of the Earth campaigner is hardly the only city-dweller to face such obstacles in trying to make her use of transport more environmentally friendly. Her struggles are replicated in towns and cities across the world.
So what needs to be done to make these eco intentions a reality?
In the pipeline
There are plenty of projects in place harnessing new technology to make life easier for electric car drivers, particularly when it comes to making charging the vehicle faster and easier.
In May, the world's first trial of an EV-charging highway was launched in Italy.
Israeli company ElectReon Wireless began building a one-kilometre stretch of road between Milan and Bresica which allows electric vehicles to charge as they drive. Copper coils at the side of the road transfer energy to the batteries by magnetic induction as they pass. If it works, it would reduce 'range anxiety' – the fear that a vehicle won’t reach its destination – of motorists, as well as the need for charging stations.
In Coventry, in the Midlands of England, electricity network operator Western Power Distribution is carrying out a research project into 'on the go' charging.
It is assessing whether wireless inductive technology under the surface of the road is practical, particularly for HGVs that are constantly on the move. The solution would also prevent the drain on the network of everyone charging at the same time when they return home from work.
From this month, Camden Council in London is trialling street charging points which are hidden under the pavement when not in use, reducing obtrusive street clutter.
And for those happy to charge away from their home, the first of 100 all-electric service stations opened in Essex, south-east England, at the end of last year. The facilities that Gridserve and Hitachi Capital UK Plc opened are part of a £1 billion ($1.35bn) programme for stations across the country. It includes 36 rapid chargers powered only by renewable energy. The charging technology is among the fastest commercially available in Britain and can top up a battery with 320km of capacity in 20 minutes.
New kid on the block
These pioneering projects undoubtedly help and with the UN's Cop26 climate summit taking place in Glasgow at the end of the year, the UK is fully aware of the need to accelerate change.
But an international shift in focus will be needed to truly make a difference.
While electric vehicle ownership in Europe is growing, it is still comparatively small compared to less carbon-friendly alternatives. To this end, the European Commission has prioritised the green transition in Covid-19 recovery efforts, targeting a transformation of how member states run their economies.
With the transport sector accounting for the largest greenhouse emissions in the bloc, the race is on to encourage consumers to switch to green vehicles. In Spain, a leader in electric high-speed trains, the government has signalled that it wants to use a chunk of the $166bn it will receive from the EU's recovery plan to jumpstart its electric car industry.
Amy Nguyen, a sustainability consultant and founder of the platform Sustainable & Social, said “electric vehicles will play a critical role in helping us to decarbonise the transportation sector”.
Across Europe, the registration of greener vehicles is growing even if its penetration remains limited. In 2020, battery electric vehicles accounted for 5.4 per cent of new car registrations compared to only 0.7 per cent in 2017.
In the UK, BEVs made up 6.9 per cent of the market share of new registration in January 2021 compared to 2.7 per cent a year before, as more and more people switch. However, greener vehicle uptake is still dwarfed by that of more polluting petrol and diesel cars.
The British government wants all new cars to be zero-emission from 2035, but has already been warned by MPs that it faces an uphill task to achieve this. Experts say a series of fundamental roadblocks remain in place of greater electric vehicle uptake, such as upfront costs for consumers and a shortage of critical infrastructure, such as charging points.
Dr Alison Doig, a UK-based climate consultant, says there needs to be a mindset shift by the government to make electric vehicles more affordable and accessible. It’s a wider point being made more generally on the European continent, the second largest global consumer of electric vehicles after China.
"The government has to stop thinking of electric vehicles as a luxury item for the middle classes, who've got nice driveways and can plug in at home and it's seen as an extra," Dr Doig told The National. She said it was crucial that charging points for vehicles were accessible for all.
“In the same way that you go and fill up at a petrol station, you have to be able to do that if you live in a high rise and don't have a dedicated parking spot or you’re parking on the street.
“So, I think there's a mindset shift that needs to happen away from this sort of middle-class approach to quite high-quality vehicles, to actually incentivising a broader uptake of affordable electric vehicles with charging across the country that everyone can access.”
Meg Hillier, who chairs the UK Parliament's Public Account Committee, says the UK government “has a mountain to climb” to get all cars carbon free by 2025. She said it needed “to convince consumers and make the cars appealing, to make the car industry environmentally and socially compliant, to build the necessary infrastructure to support this radical shift and possibly biggest of all, to wean itself off carbon revenues”.
A quick scan of some of the better-known models suggests why for many electric cars are simply unobtainable.
A top ten list, put together by British energy company EDF, of the cheapest electric cars on the market contains many that cost more than £25,000.
The cheapest is the Skoda CITIGOe iV at £15,000.
Ms Nguyen told The National that significant government incentives were needed to encourage drivers to switch.
The UK’s motor industry trade association, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, is urging the government and other stakeholders to put normal people at the heart of their planning when it comes to electric vehicles. SMMT’s chief executive Mike Hawes welcomes the government’s plan for an electric revolution but for that to happen it “must convince consumers to make the switch, it must provide the incentives that make electric cars affordable for all, and it must ensure recharging is as easy as refuelling – which means a massive and rapid rollout of infrastructure nationwide”.
Alternative to the auto
The Institute for Public Policy Research warns that shifting to electric vehicles is not enough, with an emphasis on public transport, cycling and walking needed.
New analysis by the think tank suggests that despite the current approach to decarbonising transport in the UK, a 28 per cent increase in car use by 2050 is expected.
“The government’s current preferred strategy places an overwhelming focus on the shift to electric vehicles. While superficially attractive because of its offer of continuity, such an approach will not deliver for people or planet,” said Luke Murphy, who heads up the IPPR’s environmental justice commission.
“We need to massively expand the provision of and affordability of clean public transport options, such as trains, buses and trams, while helping more people to regularly walk and cycle, alongside a shift to electric vehicles for those that need them," he said.
"They are by no means an instant panacea to helping us meet the UK's ambitious climate targets to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035,” said Ms Nguyen of electric cars. “We also need to couple this with a conversation that encourages commuters to drive less because even if we clicked our fingers and everyone drove an EV, this would not abate the climate crisis."
Ditching the car altogether is certainly one option that Ms Muir may fall back on. "Living in London, obviously there’s loads of public transport so I don’t even use the car that much. I’ll probably end up just having no car before looking at having an electric. I would love one, I do like driving. But it’s not really possible at the moment."