Leader comment: Ban can only work when electric cars finish their journey

The UK government's clear air strategy, which incorporates a plan to ban new petrol and diesel cars from 2040, has been criticised by environmental groups for not going far enough or fast enough.

Charging points for electric cars are on the increase, but the process will take considerably longer than filling up at the petrol station. Picture: Michael Gillen

A cleaner environment, at the earliest opportunity, is an objective we all share, and a transport system which isn’t run on fossil fuels is getting closer. But instead of being too little, and taking too long, it is more realistic to say that the strategy timetable looks ambitious.

Vehicle technology is moving at speed, with driverless cars apparently just around the corner. However, to wean ourselves off petrol and diesel cars, we need the electric vehicle to perform at a level that is a long way out of its reach at present.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

The two key issues are the availability of charging points, and the mileage of a fully charged battery. It is quite possible, and within the government’s power, to pepper the land with charging points over the next twenty years, although the amount of time to charge a battery will also be a significant factor. Filling up at a petrol station takes five minutes at a pump, whereas connecting at a charging point is going to take considerably longer.

But the bigger challenge is the 
distance that an electric car can 
cover. There has to be a step-change in the potential mileage of an electric car over the next two decades before a ban on petrol and diesel cars is either practical or viable, because the current capacity of around 100 miles would rule out road travel for any journey of significant distance – or at least, ensure that the journey took considerably longer, as time is built in for recharging en route.

Environmentalists may argue that this will encourage car users to switch to public transport, but this would only be an option if the rail network was far more comprehensive than it is at the moment, particularly in Scotland.

The electric car faces an additional challenge north of the border, where car use beyond the central belt is essential if rural communities are to be maintained, and distances travelled just to get to the nearest town are often significantly longer than an urban commute.

It is possible that the 2040 target will not be met, or has to be revised. That would only be sensible, if the pace of technology made the intention undeliverable. Our mobility cannot be taken backwards in a flawed attempt to take society forwards.