Britain to push back ban on new petrol and diesel cars to 2035, confirms Rishi Sunak (updated)

Aligns UK's electric vehicle target with other countries, PM says

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that the ban on pure-petrol and diesel cars is being pushed back to 2035, which he says is “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic”, easing the burden on motorists during the cost of living crisis and aligning the UK with targets in other countries.

Sunak said the government is working hard to make the UK a world leader on electric cars, and is confident that by 2030 most motorists will drive a zero emission vehicle. However, in a sudden lunge towards small-state politics the PM said it should be the consumer, not the government, that makes the choice on when to make the switch.

He said: “The upfront cost [of electric vehicles] still is high, especially for families struggling with the cost of living; small businesses are worried about the practicalities; and we’ve got further to go to get the charging infrastructure truly nationwide; and we need to strengthen our own auto industry, so we aren’t heavily reliant on carbon-intensive imports from countries like China.”

Sunak said that pushing back the ban on new petrol and diesel cars will ease the transition to electric vehicles, and give the UK more time to prepare. He clarified that new petrol and diesel cars can still be sold up to 2035, and that after that motorists and dealers will still be able to buy and sell them secondhand.

The 2035 target aligns the UK with countries, he added, such as Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and US states such as California, New York and Massachusetts, while still bringing in the ban before the likes of New Zealand and the rest of America.

Confusion as ZEV mandate targets remain

Despite the delay to 2035, the Department for Transport said today that the Zero Emission Vehicles targets, which require carmakers to ramp up sales of electric vehicles over the coming years, still remain in place.

Car manufacturers will be fined £15,000 per car if they miss a target of 22 per cent of their sales being electric in 2024, the business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch said during press rounds this morning, though an announcement clarifying the situation is expected later today.

Yesterday, Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: “The automotive industry’s commitment to a zero-emission new car and van market remains unchanged. Manufacturers will continue to put innovative new models on the market but consumers need encouragement to buy more than ever.”

2030 delay caught many by surprise

The announcement blindsided many politicians, The Times reported — including some Conservatives within Sunak’s cabinet. As recently as Monday afternoon, the transport secretary Mark Harper had told the motor industry that his party was sticking with the 2030 date, and that the government wanted to give the carmakers “regulatory certainty” on the move to electric vehicles “in the run up to 2030”.

In July, energy minister Andrew Bowie told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “The Prime Minister has been quite clear we are committed to the 2030 target for the phasing out of new petrol or diesel cars.”

And Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, called the 2030 deadline “immovable”.

Rishi Sunak said at that time that the plans remained part of his agenda, though he was already thinking about softening environmental targets. He told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme in July:

“[The 2030 ban has] been the Government’s policy for a long time. It remains the Government’s policy. But what I have said more generally on my approach, is that we will transition to net zero, I’m committed to it, but we will do it in a proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t necessarily add burden or cost to families’ bills, particularly at a time when inflation is higher than any of us would have liked.”

It was reported that Sunak has been seriously considering the delay since the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election in July, in which the Tories narrowly clung onto its seat. The election was seen as a de facto referendum on the expansion of London’s ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ), with many voters deciding to send a message to Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Sunak was reported to be against the 2030 target as far back as November 2020, when it was announced by then-PM Boris Johnson, The Times said, though the then-chancellor lost the argument.

The decision to delay the ban was made by last weekend, the paper claimed. Sunak was planning to make the announcement later this week before the news was leaked to the BBC, and a statement had to be rushed out.

The Times‘s sources disagreed over whether Harper knew about the plans before his speech to the industry on Monday. If he did it is likely to anger already-frustrated carmakers that the information was concealed.

China is a major factor

Sunak’s mention of China in his speech yesterday is no throw-away line; European politicians are increasingly concerned about China’s hold on the electric vehicle market, and what the coming flood of new Chinese vehicles means for the West.

Tory former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith warned in July that the UK risks “simply becoming even more dependent on China” if the 2030 target is not pushed back, suggesting the PM may have been swayed to act by backbenchers with this in mind.

Sir Iain told Sky News the 2030 date was “plucked out of nowhere”, adding: “China is ready to literally flood the market here with cheap electric cars, all their battery companies, which by the way are many, and they produce far more batteries than the whole of Europe put together … They are going to dump those on us.”

He added: “We are rapidly becoming the only developed country in the world that is still clinging to an arbitrary target which we probably won’t make, and which is going to destroy much of our industry.”

Earlier this month, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced an anti-subsidy probe into Chinese electric vehicles. The investigation will look into whether to impose punitive tariffs to protect EU carmakers against cheaper Chinese EV imports that are claimed to be benefiting from excessive state subsidies.

“Europe will do whatever it takes to keep its competitive edge,” she told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “Europe is open to competition. Not for a race to the bottom.”

Industry reaction

Rather than being pleased with a relaxation of the targets, some parts of the British motor industry reacted to the news with alarm. With most car manufacturers planning product cycles many years in advance, most were on course to meet the targets, while electric vehicle charging firms were working apace to improve the infrastructure as EV sales ramp up.

Earlier today, the chair of Ford UK, Lisa Brankin, pointed out that her company had invested $50billion (£40.5bn) globally to produce electric vehicle, and plans to launch nine electric vehicles by 2025.

“The range is supported by £430million invested in Ford’s UK development and manufacturing facilities, with further funding planned for the 2030 timeframe,” she said. “This is the biggest industry transformation in over a century and the UK 2030 target is a vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future.

“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”

“Consumers have mixed emotions about the switch to electric, and today’s comments will only add to the confusion”

Stellantis, the group that includes brands such as Peugeot, Citroen, Vauxhall and Fiat, said it is committed to making 100 per cent of its new car and van sales zero emission in the UK and Europe by 2030.

“Our range will progressively move towards 100 per cent electric, ahead of current legislation. For example, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and DS Automobiles becoming fully electric by 2027 and Vauxhall by 2028. Furthermore, as outlined in our Dare Forward 2030 strategic plan, we will be carbon net zero by 2038.

“Clarity and reasonable anticipation are important from governments where we operate on important legislation, including environmental issues, given the planning cycles of our sector.”

Lisa Watson, director of sales at Close Brothers Motor Finance, claimed the decision to delay the petrol and diesel ban won’t come as a surprise to car dealers as 85 per cent of them didn’t expect it would go ahead as planned, with one in five believing it would be scrapped altogether.

“We know that consumers also have mixed emotions about the switch to electric, and today’s comments will only add to the confusion felt across the industry about the future of car choice. The news will also leave manufacturers in the lurch, who have had to adapt their plans based on the ban.”

Reacting to Sunak’s announcement this afternoon, Richard Peberdy, UK head of automotive for business consultancy KPMG, said the danger is that consumers and businesses alike will lose confidence in the transition to electric vehicles.

“The deadline gave the industry certainty on which to invest, which was supported by consumer and industrial strategy,” he said.

“While delaying this deadline allows for more time for transition to electric vehicles and investment to be made in related infrastructure, we have already seen that big concerns are being raised by some of the automotive industry about the impact of this decision on investment plans, the consumer desire to transition to EVs, and the certainty that business can have in the new deadline.” 

Jordan Marie Brompton, co-founder of myenergi, pointed out on LinkedIn that delaying the ban will also mean affordable secondhand EVs will take longer to arrive: “Families that can’t afford a new car won’t like it, as they’ll likely have to wait longer to purchase a cheaper-to-run electric car in the used market.

“Backing down on essential green policies doesn’t help anyone – but using it as a bargaining chip for votes is simply unbelievable. If we’re serious about net zero, intent on decarbonisation and really committed to hitting our targets, we need to make big, bold, brave decisions — and stick to them! I’m sorry, Prime Minister, but this simply isn’t good enough.”

Support from niche carmakers

However, Sunak may see support from small carmakers in Britain.

Bristol Cars, which is being revived as a low-volume maker of luxury sports cars and restomods, welcomed the announcement.

A statement read: “We are committed to achieving net zero by 2050, but as a low-volume luxury automotive manufacturer we welcome the extra time this policy change will allow, to fully exploit emerging new technologies, such as solid-state batteries, and possibly hydrogen. This policy will also allow more time to roll-out the infrastructure required to make these technologies viable for all.”

Sunak also announced he is scrapping proposed quotas on the number of passengers required in each car, though some commentators claimed this was never a proposal that had been put on the table.

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