Electric car sales are rising, but so are emissions. What’s going on?

More of us are buying electric cars than ever before, but our emissions are still going up. Falling diesel and rising SUV sales are to blame

Here’s a misleading statistic: UK electric car sales doubled in 2019. According to market insights firm LMC Automotive, battery electric vehicles made up 1.6 per cent of UK sales in 2019, about double the year before. But this doesn’t mean the UK’s automotive emissions are heading in the right direction. The reality is far more murky.

Last year, the average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of cars sold in the UK rose for the third year in a row. And for every electric car purchased in 2019, we bought 37 SUVs. Our growing interest in bigger, heavier vehicles, plus the sudden decline in diesel car sales, has pulled the UK further away from its looming transport emissions targets.

It’s a big step backwards, at exactly the wrong moment. The average CO2 emissions per kilometre for UK cars now stands at 127.9 grams – well past the EU’s new target of 95g of CO2 per kilometre for new cars. If auto manufacturers don’t hit the target, they’ll be hit with big fines.

“It’s going to be a tough couple of years,” says Al Bedwell, head of powertrain forecast at LMC. “At the moment the gap between where CO2 is now and where it needs to be at the end of next year, for some car makers, is pretty big. So there’s a real dilemma.” Car brands may need to start selling electric vehicles at a loss in order to meet the goals, he says. “There is definitely a risk that some of them will miss the target and will end up paying quite big fines to the commission.”

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This wasn’t supposed to happen. When the EU drew up plans for new CO2 targets in 2012, sales of diesel cars were strong and the UK SUV market was still in its relatively early stages. “The target could have been achieved with a relatively low share of electric vehicles, but now it has become a lot tougher,” Bedwell says.

Since then, things in the automotive industry have gotten messier. The drop in diesel sales can easily be traced to the 2015 diesel emissions scandal, when VW deliberately used software that underestimated emission readings during tests. Trust in diesel vehicles plummeted. And now, even though new diesel vehicles are far more efficient than their petrol counterparts, no one wants to buy them. Even though real world testing found new diesel vehicles emit 18 per cent less carbon than petrol equivalents, diesel cars now barely make up a quarter of sales, compared to almost a third in 2018.

And while diesel cars have been dropping out of favour, SUVs have been ascending. Brits bought 12 per cent more SUVs last year than they did in 2018. “It’s a tough one for the carmakers,” says Bedwell, “because they have to produce what people want to buy.” Christian Brand, associate professor at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and Transport Studies Unit, doesn’t share in Bedwell’s sympathies. “Consumers can only buy what manufacturers offer them,” he says. “Car makers say they offer a whole range of things, but the fact that they offer SUVs in the first place is a problem.”

At this point in the climate emergency, should car makers even be allowed to sell vehicles that are environmentally irresponsible? Brand thinks stronger regulations must be brought in. “If we’re serious about getting to net zero, this growth in the size of vehicles needs to be prevented,” he says. “We’re wasting 20-25 per cent of carbon emissions just through that.”

Our net zero transport by 2050 goal isn’t going to achieve itself, especially if we keep chucking extra carbon into the atmosphere in exchange for a more stylish ride. The 2021 EU targets are the UK car industry’s first real test in the run up to our 2050 goals. “We’ve really only got 10 years to make significant change,” says Jillian Anable, co-director of the UK Energy Research Council (UKERC). “If we wait then it becomes physically impossible to do it in time.”