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Very marginal

Undoubtedly cars are an essential part of our way of life. In 2014, the latest year for which complete data is available from the Department for Transport, some 83% of all travel was by car. That’s 83% of 788 billion passenger-kilometres. Rail only accounted for 10%. So, without cars, no-one is going anywhere.

Since 2014, car traffic has increased considerably. It was up 0.9% in the year-ending September 2016. At the same time, van traffic was up 3.8%. And the number of vans in the UK exceeded four million in 2016, with the FTA anticipating more growth expected because of e-commerce.

Of course, as a densely populated country with, let’s face it, an inadequate road system, traffic jams and pollution are major problems. There is probably very little we can do about congestion. Public transport is not the solution; it’s just too far behind the curve. More roads are the answer, but the confines of our very small island limit the possibilities. In the end, people will just drive less rather than waste their lives in traffic jams, which is what has been happening – annual mileages are falling.

Pollution is perhaps a more important problem – indeed, a deadly problem. Reputedly, Mexico City has the worst air quality in the world, but Madrid, Athens and Paris are not far behind. The blame is being laid squarely on diesel engines and the mayors of these four capitals have signed up to a diesel ban by 2025. The mayor of London is contemplating a similar ban, and he has already announced the phasing out of diesel buses. It seems unlikely that London will ban diesels altogether, but hike the congestion charge to discourage diesels.

Given all the drama in recent years about ‘carbon footprints’, and how we were encouraged to buy diesels because of lower CO2 emissions, discouraging diesels seems to be the new plan. The UK Labour Party is apparently discussing banning sales of cars with internal combustion engines from a certain date in the future. Only electric vehicles, or similar zero or low carbon (for example hydrogen) cars would be on sale. A similar idea has been floated in Germany.

The trouble is the UK’s national grid spare capacity is very marginal, soon to become even more marginal as further requirements of the 2008 Climate Change Act kick in and all coal power stations are forced to close – by 2025, we believe. Also by that date, several nuclear power stations will close, having reached the end of their life.

In the cold snap at the end of November, electricity demand reached a peak. Some 51% was supplied by gas-fired power stations, 17% by nuclear and 19% by coal. Wind turbines produced next to nothing because there was no wind. So going forward, just keeping the lights on will be hard enough, never mind charging millions of electric cars.

Pollution is a problem, but we have to find better solutions than another ‘picking winners’ campaign by politicians. After all, diesels were supposed to be ‘winners’.
Written by Trend Tracker director Chris Oakham, this piece first appeared in the subscription monthly Auto Retail Bulletin.(See for subscription details.)


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