Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s the latest to join a global movement, but London’s mayor says it’s not enough.
In Europe, it looks like the gas-powered car is reaching the end of the road.
On Wednesday, the British government promised to ban sales of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles starting in 2040, suggesting that it could be just a matter of decades before they disappear from the streets. One country’s ban isn’t mode-shifting on its own, but Britain is far from alone here. France announced a similar 2040 ban earlier this month. Norway is being even more proactive, aiming to phase out petrol and diesel car sales by 2025—in this case with a substantial tax on them compared to electric vehicles, rather than a total ban. A post-2025 ban is currently wending its way through the Dutch Parliament, and pressure is even growing across the political spectrum in Germany for similar action, though the country’s powerful manufacturing lobby may slow progress there. Outside the continent, India has also promised to sell only electric vehicles from 2030.
With these regulations in such lucrative markets, it’s only a matter of time until automakers are forced to change their ways as well. Sweden’s Volvo, for example, has already decided to produce only electric or hybrid cars starting in 2019, and announcements like Britain’s mean that other manufacturers will no doubt continue to increase their electric car production, if not move entirely in that direction over time. A world where most vehicles no longer burn gas is no longer just an aspiration—it may be an imminent reality.
But not everyone sees Britain’s new announcement as sufficient progress. Already London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, presiding over a city where up to 9,500 people die annually due to pollution-related causes, is calling for stronger action.
“A half-hearted commitment from government simply isn’t good enough,” he told the Standard newspaper. “We need a fully funded diesel scrappage fund now to get polluting vehicles off our streets immediately, as well as new powers so that cities across the U.K. can take the action needed to clean up our air.”
Khan has a point. A sales ban from 2040 would kick the measure so far into the future that babies born today would be adults before the law takes hold. None of the present government will be around to implement it, and in the meantime millions of Britons must continue to heave and wheeze. If India, a country of over 1.3 billion people, can manage a change by 2030, then Britain has little excuse to hold on for a decade longer.
Still, Britain’s promised sales ban is a major milestone. It may not necessarily show a progressive government proactively reshaping the future, but it suggests something equally encouraging. Governments like Britain’s can evidently where things are heading. Pressuring manufacturers to change their production output to lower-carbon alternatives makes it easier for them to meet their emissions reduction targets without massive state spending. It also makes them look like they’re on the right side of history.
The British government may not itself be setting the pace of change, but the fact that it has proposed any change at all shows how much the debate around cars and emissions has already shifted gears.