The recent fuel crisis in the UK has highlighted our undying reliance on fossil fuels like little else in recent memory. Fights at petrol stations, cancellations of cancer appointments, and plans to draft in the army to deliver fuel have shown how unprepared we are to move to a post-petrol world. How can we move away from oil towards a more sustainable and resilient transport system?
Balance of power?
An obvious factor in the scale of the crisis is the low uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) in the UK. EV are powered by electricity from the National Grid, which distributes electricity from a range of sources across Great Britain, meaning they are much less susceptible to supply line issues.
While there has been a greater than exponential rise in electric car sales across Europe, with electric car registrations passing one million for the first time this year, battery electric vehicles in the UK still have a market share of less than 10% so far in 2021. Even when plug-in hybrid vehicles are factored in, the market share is still below 15% for electric vehicles so far this year (the highest market share ever).
This figure will have to continue rising rapidly if the UK is to keep with the Government’s pledge to ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 – the soonest date of any G7 country. The fuel crisis could have a slight silver-lining in this regard; Google searches for ‘electric car’ in the UK rocketed to a five-year high at the end of September, and there have been many reports of a “bonkers” rise in EV sales and enquiries.
The fuel shortage that wasn’t a fuel shortage
The government has been keen to insist that there isn’t actually a fuel shortage, rather that the fuel is just in the wrong place (stuck in refineries and storage centres), a semantic trick surely appreciated by those buried alive just six feet below an abundance of oxygen. Though the point remains that the cause of the crisis isn’t a lack of oil or even refined fuel, but that it is part of the wider supply line crisis engulfing the country due to a lack of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers (a crisis that has consequences as dire as cancelled college formals).
The real crisis then is a labour supply crisis, which has led to increased pay offers for new HGV drivers and an accompanying series of sensational headlines about drivers earning “BIG BUCKS!” and “incredible salaries”. The crisis can then be explained in terms of a nefarious blend of the difficulty of the job, the postponement of training due to Covid-19, Brexit, and numerous other factors.
Nevertheless, by moving to an electricity-based transport system the country would be more resilient to these crises. The National Grid is powered by a mix of energy sources, allowing it to respond dynamically to changes in supply. Even the current surge in electricity prices demonstrated this ability, with the UK responding to low wind-power generation and broken electricity inter-connectors by increasing electricity production from gas (the problem being that gas prices are at a record high…). So why aren’t we buying more EVs?
EVs are usually cheaper to run than the fossil fuel alternative. In 2020 the average price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for electricity in the UK was 18p, meaning a full charge for a 50 kWh car battery for a range of around 200 miles would have cost less than £10. Even with rising energy prices the figure this year is closer to £13, still about half the price of a petrol or diesel car.
Electric cars are also cheaper due to the lower taxes involved. Electricity is taxed at just 5% VAT, whereas fuel duty on petrol and diesel is 57.95p per litre plus a VAT rate of 20%. However, as more people adopt EVs there is forecast to be a large drop in tax revenue which have inspired various proposals for new taxes to dampen the effect of EV uptake on the Treasury’s tax income. It is likely that some new form of taxation will make EVs more expensive to run in the future than they are today.
Public charging prices can also vary massively, in some cases causing EV charging prices to outsize their fossil fuel equivalents. Additionally, the initial cost of buying an EV is currently higher in the UK, putting off (especially lower-income) buyers. In this sense, the adoption of EVs, in combination with our current tax model, is furthering inequality; the wealthier who can afford to buy EVs benefit from lower long-term costs and pay less tax.
A cleaner cycle?
While EVs are preferable to traditional combustion engines, there is another way. Another way which would make us more resilient to fuel supply issues and energy price hikes, as well as being more beneficial to the environment and our health: cycling.
The benefits of cycling for those who are able to are mostly obvious, but the environmental effect can be less clear (EVs don’t emit anything either?). The problem with EVs compared to bikes is that they aren’t completely zero-carbon: manufacturing them, mining raw materials for their batteries, and generating the electricity they run on all produce emissions.
A recent study from the University of Oxford has shown that the emissions of cycling can be ten times lower per trip than traveling by an EV and thirty times lower than driving a fossil fuel car. Climate action is needed urgently to ensure we can remain below 1.5 degrees of heating, and to avoid the worst possible climate ‘tipping points’. We should be doing all we can to encourage people to get on their bikes.
Ironically, roads are perhaps the main barrier to cycling for many people. Two in three adults in the UK believe that roads are too difficult to cycle on and the figure is even higher for women, in particular. A 2015 study found that women were almost twice as likely to experience a ‘near-miss’ or abuse while cycling compared to male cyclists, and there is evidence that drivers are more likely to pass dangerously close to women.
Improving transport planning to create environments less hostile to cycling could have a massive effect on cycling uptake while also reducing inequality. The reduced congestion would even make driving easier for those who are unable to cycle. The resilience of our economy, our health and wellbeing, and the planet would all benefit.
Image: John Cameron via Unsplash