The zeitgeist is often a good companion of political leaders, but nowhere is riding popular sentiments easier these days than in the field of climate policy. The promises made and the worth of the money spent, can only be judged years, if not decades, down the road, and long after those who made them will have retired.

As Boris Johnson seeks to relaunch his premiership, hobbled by Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s pulled a green investment plan out of his hat to rejuvenate Britain’s industrial heartlands, whose voters strongly supported him in last year’s election.

“My ten-point plan will create, support and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero by 2050,” the prime minister said in a statement, released by his office on Wednesday.

Underscoring that he hadn’t lost sight of his “ambitious plans to level up across the country,” Johnson unveiled investment in electric vehicles, hydrogen, wind and nuclear power, and measures to make homes more energy-efficient. He plans to spend about 12 billion pounds ($15.9 billion, €13.4 billion) on the plan and promised it would create or support 250,000 jobs in the UK.

Probably the most radical policy announced by Johnson is banning the sale of cars with internal combustion engines (ICEs) from 2030. After oil, gas and coal, climate activists now are focussing people’s climate-change anxiety on conventional cars as the devil that needs to be exorcized.

In a statement, the head of Greenpeace UK, Rebecca Newsom, described the policy as “a landmark,” and said the end for polluting cars and vans was “a historic turning point” in addressing climate change. “Although there are some significant question marks and gaps, overall this is a big step forward for tackling the climate emergency,” she added.

Huge obstacles lying down the road

The British government plans to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) with 1.3 billion pounds that will be invested in a speedier roll-out of charging points in residential areas, private homes and along highways. About 582 million pounds are to be earmarked for grants to encourage consumers to buy zero or ultra-low emission vehicles. An additional 500 million pounds will be spent in the next four years to boost the production of EV batteries.

The plan to decarbonize British automobility was largely welcomed by the auto industry group, the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT), which, however, warned in a statement released Wednesday that the new deadline posed “an immense challenge” to the sector. “Success will depend on reassuring consumers that they can afford these new technologies, that they will deliver their mobility needs and, critically, that they can recharge as easily as they refuel.”

According to SMMT, there were 2.3 million new cars registered in Britain in 2019, but only 37,850 of them — or 1.6% — were battery-powered. This year, sales of EVs have risen strongly, partly due to stricter emissions rules in the EU, but have remained still well below 7% of all new vehicles registered by October.

The British car industry has long argued that greater acceptance of EVs requires stronger government funding for infrastructure.

File photo of an electric vehicle that is plugged into a charging point on a street in central London

There are currently 20,197 public charging points in the UK, in 12,724 locations — not nearly enough to push electromobility

British motoring organization RAC said in a statement on Wednesday the country’s charging network would have to grow “exponentially” if millions of petrol and diesel cars are to be replaced by battery models each year.

RAC’s head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, told the BBC that many drivers found electric cars “daunting” due to concerns about their range and the lack of charging points. “It’s vital that the government continues to invest in developing a fast, reliable and widely available network of chargers that support electric vehicle owners no matter what their circumstances or travel plans are,” he added.

Grid issues

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson’s push to electrify British cars at a greater speed also raised eyebrows within the energy industry, which stressed the expected increase in electricity consumption by a third would require billions of pounds of investment in new transmission lines and systems.

Randolph Brazier, head of innovation at the Energy Networks Association, which represents grid operators in the UK and Ireland, said the prime minister’s plan for climate action would depend on the country’s energy networks. “Accelerating the roll-out of electric vehicles and heat pumps and connecting four times the amount of offshore wind will only be possible with significant investment in the networks,” he told the Bloomberg news agency.

A photo showing the Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset, Great Britain.

Apart from renewable energy generation like offshore wind, nuclear power is an essentiel part of Johnson’s green energy plan

The challenges facing the utilities are coping with the huge rise in electricity demand, while at the same keeping the system balanced as the rising use of renewables makes the flows into the grid more variable.

Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive officer of the utility SSE, said in a conference call reported on by Bloomberg that this would require a “substantial upgrade” to the transmission network which must happen “sooner rather than later.”

Another emerging issue was how and when people charge their electric cars, he said. This would require smart charging and real-time retail electricity pricing so that consumers had information and incentives for when it would be best to plug in their vehicles.

And the hybrids?

The 2030 ban on ICE cars will not apply to the sale of so-called hybrid cars that rely on fossil fuels for much of their driving but can switch to battery mode for short distances. They are spared until 2035 after the car industry lobbied for their phaseout to be pushed to a later date than petrol and diesel models.

One in four cars sold in the UK contains some form of hybrid technology. Toyota, which owns two British manufacturing plants, has previously warned that outlawing the hybrid models made at its Burnaston factory would jeopardize future investments in the UK.

Honda, which also manufactures cars in the UK, said measures relying almost solely on battery cars were “too narrow.” It added that while all of its cars sold in the UK would be hybrid models by 2022, “there are technological and resource constraints that will be more difficult to overcome, and which mean that battery electric cannot replace internal combustion engines in all segments.”

Britain the climate leader?

Johnson’s ICE ban will come 10 years earlier than previously planned. It was first mooted in 2017 as part of a British government strategy to clean up city air and was meant to take effect in 2040. In February, the prime minister weighed bringing the date forward to 2035, as he sought to burnish his environmental credentials ahead of a now-postponed UN climate summit in Glasgow.

Bringing the date forward to 2030, now puts Britain ahead of France and Spain, which have 2040 target dates. The only country in Europe with a more ambitious target is Norway which has set the date of 2025 for banning the internal combustion engine in cars. However, only France has so far written its 2040 phaseout date into law.

Overall, some 14 countries and over 20 cities around the world are currently planning to ban the sale of passenger vehicles powered by fossil fuels. Germany, the home to several leading global carmakers, is not among them.

Climate activists have blamed intense lobbying by the auto industry for Berlin’s reluctance. According to a study issued by the ifo economic institute this month, more than 600,000 jobs could be at risk in Germany from a potential ban on combustion engine cars by 2030.

Read more: Bavaria’s Söder calls for ban on combustion engines by 2035

In response to the British decision, a German government spokeswoman said on Wednesday Chancellor Angela Merkel had repeatedly warned against “demonizing” conventional car technology, especially modern diesel engines, which offer more efficient fuel burn and lower carbon dioxide emissions. Seen from a different angle, one could say the German chancellor, who’s got a degree in physics, is again avoiding lofty promises she knows she cannot keep.