“We have a responsibility to our planet to lead,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a speech in London that launched the next UN climate conference, COP26, which is to be held later this year in Scotland.
The accelerated timetable drew immediate pushback from automakers, which raised concerns about the lack of clarity on whether the government would continue to subsidize sales of electric vehicles, the lack of charging infrastructure and potential job losses.
“It’s extremely concerning that government has seemingly moved the goalposts for consumers and industry on such a critical issue,” Mike Hawes, the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said in a statement. “With current demand for this still expensive technology still just a fraction of sales, it’s clear that accelerating an already very challenging ambition will take more than industry investment.”
The new commitment puts the United Kingdom in a group of countries leading the phase out of cars powered by fossil fuels. Norway wants all new passenger cars and vans sold in the country to be zero-emission vehicles by 2025, and India has called for new cars sold there to be powered by electricity by 2030.
Rebecca Newsom, Greenpeace UK Head of Politics, said in a statement that phasing out the internal combustion engine in the United Kingdom would have to happen even sooner, by 2030 at the latest, in order to give the country a chance of hitting its climate targets.
Even meeting the 2035 goal would require a complete transformation of the UK car market. The number of battery-powered electric vehicles sold last year in Britain grew by 144%, but sales still only made up less than 2% of the total. Hybrids, which would also be banned under the new policy in 2035, made up roughly 8% of total vehicle sales.
Hawes called on the government to develop a comprehensive plan to help the industry meet the new goal, suggesting that a haphazard approach could undermine sales of hybrid vehicles that are helping to meet climate goals in the near term.
“If the UK is to lead the global zero emissions agenda, we need a competitive marketplace and a competitive business environment to encourage manufacturers to sell and build here. A date without a plan will merely destroy value today,” he said.
UK car production fell 14% last year, according to data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Trouble in key overseas markets, and a shift away from diesel cars in Europe, played a role in the sector’s third consecutive annual decline.
Brexit is likely to continue to stoke uncertainty.
The global automakers who have built factories in the country fear the year could end without Britain having agreed a new trade deal with the European Union. That would snarl their supply chains, disrupt production and erode profit margins that are already razor thin.