Carbon emissions from passenger cars across Britain have fallen by just 1% since 2011, despite a steep rise in the sale of electric and hybrid vehicles, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has said.
The National Audit Office said the popularity of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and an increase in road traffic were among factors that have cancelled out expected reductions from low-emission car sales.
Its report concludes that the government has a long way to go to achieve its target for almost all cars to emit no carbon by 2050.
Ministers have announced plans to restrict the sale of new cars that are powered solely by petrol or diesel by 2030 in an effort to cut emissions from the 67.9m tonnes of CO2 equivalent emitted by cars in 2018 – nearly a fifth of the UK’s total emissions. From 2035, only zero-emission cars will be sold.
In a 2013 strategy paper, the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV) forecast that carbon emissions from cars would fall by 10 million tonnes between 2010 and 2020.
Auditors examined data from the Department for Transport and found that average emissions from new cars fell by 13% between 2011 and 2016 but increased by 6% between 2016 and 2019.
“The recent increase has been ascribed to several factors, which have cancelled out the reductions from ultra-low-emission cars. These include a rise in the sale of sports utility vehicles, increased road traffic and travel by car, and revised methods for estimating carbon emissions,” the report says.
OZEV provides grants and subsidies to fund the installation of charge points, and spent £1bn on the plug-in car grant, which reduces the upfront purchase cost of qualifying cars.
Auditors said the government had contributed towards more than 140,000 car charge points, but most of them were on private driveways.
“OZEV informed the NAO that it initially focused on supporting people with off-street parking or with an ability to charge at work. It has not yet focused sufficiently on charge point availability for people who do not have a driveway,” the report says.
Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, expressed concern at the findings and said the government must help to make electric cars an affordable and practical option for most people.
“The vast majority of charging points are for private off-street parking. Not everyone has a driveway to charge their car. And reducing emissions shouldn’t be a luxury reserved for the middle classes,” she said. “This can’t be a pie in the sky ambition – government must urgently develop a real plan.”
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Meeting the government’s ambitious targets to phase out new petrol and diesel cars in less than a decade still requires a major transition for consumers, carmakers and those responsible for charging infrastructure.
“Government now has the opportunity to reflect on what has gone well and better target its interventions and spending to secure this fundamental change and deliver the carbon reduction required.”
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “This government is going further and faster to decarbonise transport by phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030.
“Ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) now represent nearly 11% of the new car market. Alongside the billions we are investing to support industry and consumers to make the switch to cleaner vehicles, we are proud to be a global leader in the development and manufacture of ULEVs.
“We will set out a plan later this year on how we will deliver these new ambitious phase out dates.”