Rishi Sunak may have gone backwards on the environment, but the SNP have been too quick to roll over on the ban on petrol and diesel vans.
Despite delaying or scrapping a number of key commitments, Sunak claims that the UK can still meet its 2050 net zero target, even though its advisers say that that’s not the case, having already warned this summer that the UK needed to beef up its plans if it was to stay on track to meet the 2050 target.
But how fast we reduce emissions in the short term is much more important than meeting the long-term target. What matters to the planet’s atmosphere is not whether you’ve got a great ambition for 2050 but whether you are rapidly reducing emissions today, this month, this year, this decade. Nicola Sturgeon understood this. She knew that Scotland’s 2030 target was more important than our commitment to net zero by 2045 because it was about how much we do soon.
While Sunak was grandstanding for the Daily Mail, our First Minister was at a UN Climate Summit in New York. His response to the changes being made by the Prime Minister was forthright and robust. But in one area the Scottish Government should have held firm, or at least firmer.
In 2017, the SNP government, announced a commitment to phasing out the need for petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, choosing that date because that’s when the current climate change plan ran out.
They made this promise, even though at the time that UK Government had no similar commitment and they knew that they lacked the powers to actually prohibit to the sale of these vehicles. The Scottish Government still can’t prohibit a company on the motor mile in Perth selling a fossil-fuelled vehicle, nor prevent someone nipping over the border to buy a gas guzzler in Carlisle.
Their very carefully phrased wording about ‘phasing out the need for’ was to show that this would be done by making the alternatives more attractive, by improving public transport and walking and cycling provision, by building up the EV charging network (now second only to London in chargers per person), and switching public vehicle fleets to electric. Since then they have also introduced low emissions zones, committed to reduce car traffic by 20% by 2030 and promised emissions-free city centres (although they seem to have forgotten about this one again).
In 2020 Boris Johnson set a date for phasing out the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans of 2035 and then, nine months later, increased this ambition to 2030 and so the Scottish Government moved their date to 2030.
The Labour Party have said they will reinstate the 2030 date if they win the next UK election. This makes sense because the purchase price of electric cars is falling and expected to reach parity with fossil-fuelled cars in only two or three years’ time. The running costs are already considerably lower. And major manufacturers like Volvo, BMW and the European arm of Ford are all phasing out fossil-fuelled models by 2030 or sooner; Volkswagen are aiming for 2033. Norway has committed to end sales of fossil-fuelled cars in just two years’ time.
Putting the UK date back again to 2035 should have meant the Scottish Government going back to plan A but instead the SNP immediately said basically if the UK government aren’t doing it we aren’t doing it and opted for the 2035 date.
But nothing has really changed since that 2017 commitment. Instead of giving in and invoking the spectre of the Internal Markets Act, the Scottish Government should have committed to reviewing when it can deliver on its original promise. 2030 might be a little too ambitious now, but the original target of 2032 is still within reach.
A version of this article was published in the Scotsman newspaper on 27th September 2023.
Image: traffic on the Edinburgh City Bypass, copyright Mat Fascione and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.