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‘Climate change doesn’t mean we have to stop riding motorcycles’

A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs on Fair Fuel condems the Government’s plans to ban the sale of new fossil fuelled car and bikes. BMF’s Peter Henshaw calls the report a travesty.

It sounds pretty official, doesn’t it? A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs on Fair Fuel finds that the Government’s decision to end sales of new petrol and diesel cars in 2030 is wrong headed and demands that it be abandoned. It says that MPs are ‘lining up’ to support its stance and that a survey of the public backs this up.

‘Just 19 MPs supported this report – out of 600+ MPs, it’s not a landslide majority.’

Except that this ‘report’ is a travesty, filled with errors, half-truths and personal opinions. It is not a last-minute reprieve for the petrol engine, and certainly won’t change government policy. It’s big on opinions, short on science and I can’t imagine anyone in government taking it seriously. First of all, where has it come from? All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are informal groups of MPs which can be formed, around and on, any subject. They have no official status and aren’t part of the government (or the official opposition). The Fair Fuel group has a grand total nine MP members, and just 19 MPs supported this report – out of 600+ MPs, it’s not a landslide majority.

The Fair Fuel APPG is ‘backed’ (presumably funded) by the Road Haulage Association and Logistics UK (what used to be the Freight Transport Association). Not that there’s anything wrong with that – any industry has the right to lobby for its own interests, but it’s useful to know who is behind the scenes. Other contributors to this report are the Alliance of British Drivers, MAG and the avowedly climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation, which thinks climate change isn’t a problem.

Not unusual
The word ‘report’ suggests something carefully researched and written in a balanced way which considers all the facts. Unfortunately, the APPG report isn’t any such thing. It attacks “badly phrased highly emotive headline figures” and “highly tenuous scientific reports,” claiming to be a “measured” response. Government policy, it adds, should be based on “facts, common sense and honesty.” Well of course it should. The trouble is, the APPG report isn’t short of a few emotive blurtings of its own. The authors are against “vocal green zealots” and “climate fanatics,” not to mention the government’s “obsession” with electric vehicles. This is the same government which has kept fuel duty frozen for 10 years, not what you expect from an administration hostile to fossil fuels.

The decision to end sales of new fossil-fuelled cars and vans in 2030 does sound pretty radical. After all, it’s only nine years away, and the motorcycle sales ban comes in just five years later (along with hybrid cars). But neither of these are as cliff-edge as they sound. The UK isn’t alone in setting a date and many other countries around the world have done the same, including India, Canada and Thailand. Norway, where electric cars already account for more than half of new car sales, is likely to be first, currently on target to stop petrol/diesel car sales in 2025. Plenty of others, including Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands, have the same 2030 deadline as the UK.

So, the date, as Tom Jones used to say (and I’m sure still does) is not unusual. Nor will the end of new sales mean the immediate end of petrol/diesel on the roads, because millions of petrol/diesel cars (and motorcycles of course) will still be in everyday use. Because the date is now fixed, residuals will not fall off a cliff and forecourts will not stop selling petrol overnight. Having a date means the industry can plan for a managed transition.

Comedy of errors
So, the 2030 (2035 for bikes) date isn’t as apocalyptic as it seems. Not only that, but the APPG report shoots itself in the foot several times with factual errors. It’s been said for years that thousands of people in the UK die every year prematurely thanks to air pollution – the report describes this as a “fallacy.” The British Medical Association (and you don’t get more mainstream than that) doesn’t agree, stating that the UK sees 40,000 excess deaths a year from air pollution. “In the coming decades,” it states, “climate change and air pollution will be two of the biggest global public health challenges.” This is a derived statistic, supposed to be equivalent to the reduction in lifespan caused by air pollution over the whole population. In practice this means a few days, to a few months less life for any one individual except for susceptible individuals, such as the case mentioned below. It doesn’t alter the reality of the effect on public health.

‘The UK now generates more electricity from offshore wind that any other country.’

Remember Ella Kissi-Debrah, the nine-year-old Londoner who lived near the South Circular? She died from an asthma attack in 2013 and the coroner concluded that air pollution was a contributing factor. The APPG report casts doubt on this, referring to Ella’s “home conditions.” Howard Cox, founder of Fair Fuel UK and lead author of the report, is not a scientist – he’s a business consultant and political lobbyist (according to his Linked In profile). So, we have his doubts about why Ella died on one hand, and the official coroner on the other.

Now then, renewable energy. Not everyone is a fan of wind and solar power – the authors of this report certainly aren’t, and they reckon that 25% of the UK’s electricity comes from renewable sources. It was actually 36.9% in 2019 and is now 43%, according to the Dept of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is more than fossil fuels (nuclear makes up the difference). The UK now generates more electricity from offshore wind that any other country, and more wind farms are due to come on stream.

Britain does now import some of its electricity – according to the report, we “rely” on it, which undermines the cleanliness of our electricity since the imported stuff is “overwhelmingly coal” generated. Neither of those statements are true – just 7.2% of our electricity was imported in 2021 Q1, and it came from Belgium, the Netherlands and France, all of whom use tiny amounts of coal to produce their electricity, just like us.

Death & taxes
And so, it goes on. Several of the well-worn tropes about renewable energy and electrical vehicles are wheeled in. Such as renewable energy being heavily subsidised – take tax breaks into account and fossil fuels actually get more public money than wind and solar. A study by Imperial College London found that by the mid-2020s offshore wind electricity will be cheaper than fossil fuels, with wind farms actually paying money back to the government.

On electric cars and bikes, the report opines that “the batteries may only last about 5-10 years,” which isn’t exactly a definitive statement. Actual experience with electric cars suggests a life of well over 10 years, with early Nissan Leafs running up to 150,000 miles without problems. Batteries very rarely fail completely, but they will eventually lose capacity over time – when they’re not up to car/bike use any more, they can be given a second life as domestic or industrial energy storage. This is already happening.

Then there’s fuel duty. As we all know, the government rakes in about £35 billion a year in petrol/diesel taxes while owners of electric cars and bikes pay no fuel or road tax. How, the report authors ask, can we possibly replace that £35 billion when everyone is running around on tax-free electric wheels? You know the saying about death and taxes? Well, there’s the answer – can you imagine any government not taxing electric vehicles once they’ve become mainstream? Believe me, they will find a way.

Grid says yes
Much of the APPG report is made up of vox pop quotes from its own supporters and what they think – all sincerely held opinions, but that’s all they are, not hard evidence. Then there’s the survey. In May/June 2021 the APPG and Fair Fuel UK put out a survey inviting views on the 2030 sales ban, the transition to electric vehicles and what should replace fuel duty. This was apparently “open for all to take part” (though personally I never saw it) and had 49,160 responses.

Over 70% of respondents thought that the 2030 ban should be shelved, but that’s hardly surprising when a lobby group designs and puts out its own survey. This naturally attracts many of the group’s existing supporters and those interested in its views, which skews the results. To get a true cross-section of the population, an independent survey commissioned from one of the specialists would give a more accurate reflection of what the public in general think.

I haven’t mentioned the National Grid yet, and the report does question whether our electricity infrastructure can cope with the wholesale transition to electric vehicles (albeit over the next 20 years). It’s a fair point, because even over that time scale this is a huge change, so can the National Grid cope?

“There is definitely enough energy and the grid can cope easily,” says Graeme Cooper, National Grid’s Transport Decarbonisation Director. “The growth in renewable energy means this is not static and smart metering will make this more efficient. For example, the growth in wind power from the extra offshore wind farms being developed will adequately meet the future demand for electrifying transport – an extra 100-terawatt hours from our current 300-terawatt hours consumed.”
The coming transition is not a surprise to National Grid, which has been working out how to make it a smooth one. “Preparations have been underway for a while,” adds Graeme Cooper, “as we’ve been discussing how best we can work towards the green transport changeover with government, electricity distribution companies, service station operators and charge point providers for over two years.” Now if the National Grid was worried about its ability to cope, it probably wouldn’t say so in public, but neither would it be saying that there is definitely enough energy and the grid can cope easily.

‘Yes, climate change is happening and we have to do something about it pronto, but this doesn’t mean we all have to go and live in caves or (even worse) stop riding motorcycles.’

The elephant
There is an elephant in the room, and its climate change, which is why the fossil fuel bans are on the way. And yet the APPG report barely mentions it. This could be because at least one of the contributors is a climate-sceptic organisation. The Global Warming Policy Foundation is (according to its website) aiming to challenge “extremely damaging and harmful policies” to combat climate change.

That would all be fine and dandy if climate change really was the “contested science of global warming,” as the Foundation describes it. Except that it’s not. The scientific acceptance of manmade climate change is now overwhelming, as is the evidence. Yes, there have always been storms, droughts, floods and wildfires, but not on the current scale. Scientists have been warning us about the consequences of climate change for decades, and now this extreme weather is catching up with us. The UN’s most recent report on the problem put it in stark terms. “(This) is a code red for humanity,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general. “The evidence is irrefutable.”

What next?
Yes, climate change is happening and we have to do something about it pronto, but this doesn’t mean we all have to go and live in caves or (even worse) stop riding motorcycles. But we do need to accept that major change is coming in all areas of life. We’ve got 14 years before new petrol motorcycle sales end, maybe 20-25 years until petrol bikes fade out altogether, as everyday transport.

Play our cards right, and we can preserve more limited supplies of petrol for the long-term future, to keep our historic (as they will be) ICE (internal combustion engine) bikes on the road. By then, we’ll all be on electrics for everyday transport, but as the owner of a Zero DS, I can tell you that biking will still be fun. For that to happen, to keep open the possibility of using fossil-powered motorcycles long-term, we have to be taken seriously by government, to show that like every other sector, we are willing to adapt. The APPG report suggests we can carry on exactly as we are, but that’s not an option. We deserve better than this.

IPPC report
The key aspect of the IPCC report is that the 42-page summary is agreed, line by line, by every government on the planet, with the scientists vetoing any politically convenient but unscientific proposal.

Peter Henshaw, BMF’s Motorcycle Rider editor.

In a way I can sympathise. We’ve all grown up and lived all our lives with unlimited fossil fuels which, let’s face it, and given us all a lot pleasure over the years. Few people like the prospect of radical change. But as the song says, change is gonna come – we need to accept it and enjoy it.

I don’t think the BMF should be aligning itself with such an ill-conceived report, and it wouldn’t do the BMF any harm to be seen as the moderate wing of motorcycle opinion, willing to listen and in the longer-term, to accept the change that is coming. The trick is to soften it so that we can have an orderly transition away from fossil fuels, and one which allows us to keep using ICEs into the far future on a smaller scale than we do now.

Written by Peter Henshaw

Top photograph courtesy of Zero Motorcycles