Background to the report

Transport is the UK’s largest source of carbon emissions, with the bulk of these emissions coming from cars. In 2018 the Department for Transport (DfT) published an updated strategy, The Road to Zero, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from cars by promoting the use of ultra-low or zero-emission cars and creating the infrastructure that will allow people to charge or fuel their zero-emission cars. In November 2020, government announced its ambition to stop the sale of new cars that are powered solely by petrol or diesel by 2030. From 2035, only zero-emission cars can be sold, and by 2050 the government wants almost all cars to emit zero carbon. The government has identified factors that might hinder the development of the market for ultra-low or zero-emission cars and has provided financial support in the form of grants for consumers and subsidies to fund the installation of charge points.

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The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has overall responsibility across government for achieving net zero and DfT leads on the strategy to reduce carbon emissions from cars and make roads less congested and polluted by promoting lower-carbon-emitting transport. The Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV) is a team working across government to support the transition to zero-emission vehicles, ultimately reporting to the Secretary of State for Transport.

Scope of the report

This report examines how well the government has used public money to support the uptake of ultra-low emission cars and draw lessons for the future. It examines progress in increasing the take-up of ultra-low emission cars through the plug‑in car grant; the development of charging infrastructure using government financial support; and the impact of increasing the sale of ultra-low emission cars on carbon emissions from the UK car fleet so far.

The report focuses primarily on the impact on carbon emissions given government’s focus on reducing carbon emissions from the tail-pipe, rather than the carbon used in production. It does not examine other factors that will influence market expansion such as action taken by industry and the impact of regulation.

Report conclusions

Over the past 10 years government has spent more than £1 billion to incentivise the take-up of ultra-low emission cars. While there has been an increase in the number of ultra-low emission cars and the required charging infrastructure, carbon emissions from cars have not reduced in line with government’s initial expectations. The lack of an integrated plan with specific milestones for carbon reductions from cars has resulted in a lack of clarity over what value the public money should be delivering. As a result, the departments have not been able to demonstrate value for money from the amounts expended.

The government has set an ambitious target to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The departments need to develop their detailed plans to achieve this goal and now is an important opportunity to learn from previous efforts. This will be a complex transition as moving away from traditional fuel involves significant changes for consumers, fuel suppliers and car-makers. The departments responsible for this transition will require the appropriate skills and capacity to monitor and support all the necessary changes. To achieve this, and deliver value for money, the departments need a much clearer plan for how they will deliver this societal change, focusing on delivering carbon reductions, not solely increased car sales; and a more targeted approach to addressing potential barriers to take-up across the country.

“The number of ultra-low emission cars on UK roads has increased, but 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, car makers 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.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (26 Feb 2021)

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