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China might be home to half of all electric vehicles in the world, with two million domestically built passenger cars used by its population of 1.5 billion, but it is Norway that has the highest penetration per capita in the world.

Given its relatively tiny population of 5.4 million, that’s “outstanding”, notes Dr Dimitrios Xenias of the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

The Scandinavian country has the world’s largest plug-in hybrid market share of new car sales. Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transport at research service BloombergNEF, explains that in terms of percentages, Norway has the highest adoption levels in the world, with plug-in vehicles currently representing more than 60 per cent of all car sales.

Dr Xenias attributes this to Norway’s policy of preferential treatment for EVs which has been in place for several years, across all levels, meaning that owners benefit from dedicated car parking and low vehicle tax.

“This support was initially guaranteed for five years, or until 50,000 EVs were sold; whichever came first,” he explains.

“Norway has now exceeded 80,000 EVs, and so some of these privileges are gradually being taken away. However, EVs by now represent over half of new car sales in Norway, which seems sustainable.”

The UK could look to Norway’s example if it is serious about supporting EV ownership, he argues. “Governments should provide a stable, long-term context for the EV market to grow,” he says.

“You cannot change the rules every few years.”

While China leads the world on EV numbers, it also has the strongest regulations to encourage the shift to electric cars. All drivers are required to purchase permits before buying cars with engines in cities, and there are long waiting lists for these permits — but not for EVs. McKerracher explains that the key to increasing take-up is a mix of incentives when it comes to supply and demand.

“Customers cannot buy a car they cannot find, so markets like China and California effectively force automakers to offer EVs through various policy mechanisms,” he says.

“Norway has adopted very favourable tax treatment for EVs which makes them fully cost-competitive with their internal combustion counterparts. This isn’t feasible in all markets, but we’re seeing a growing number of countries introducing similar measures to help incentivise adoption of EVs and penalise sales of less efficient vehicles.”

The UK is currently an “average performer” in terms of electric car sales, says Greg Archer, UK director of environmental think-tank Transport and Environment. But government plans to end the sale of new cars and vans with engines by 2035 at the latest could pave the way for the UK to become the biggest electric car market in Europe.

“This is the UK’s chance to become a world leader in producing electric cars that will progressively replace all cars with engines over the next 30 years,” Archer says. “As a start, any car scrappage schemes likely to be launched as part of coronavirus recovery packages should only support the sale of battery electric cars.”

If the UK does not reach a trade deal with the European Union, he warns, there is a “real risk” that the supply of electric cars into the UK will dry up.

“The Government needs to ensure there are rules in place requiring carmakers to continue to sell electric cars here,” he says.

Peter Wells, professor of business and sustainability at the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School, argues that for the UK at least, the “big questions” on policy remain if we are to become a nation with only electric cars on our roads.

“It would be necessary to scrap all the older internal combustion engine cars, bearing in mind that older cars are often used by less wealthy households, and the sale of conventional cars — which have an average lifespan of eight years, or 150,000 miles — is still going on,” he says.

“There is a huge amount of R&D and technology work going on to support the introduction of electric cars, but not enough on the socioeconomic context in which they will need to be sold and used.”

According to Caterina Brandmayr, senior policy analyst at the thinktank Green Alliance, setting targets for UK manufacturers so they can invest and switch to production lines is crucial to an effective integration of “clean” transport systems.

“EVs are one of the areas that needs to be accelerated, going forward — but they also need to be seen within a wider strategy of how we address transport emissions,” she says.

“Before the Covid crisis, there was a trend towards lower car ownership and public transport and cycling — and we should now accelerate that infrastructure by promoting EVs alongside investment in public transport, walking and cycling infrastructures.”

She worries that post-lockdown, people may use more private travel, and be less comfortable using public transport. “We might see the streets invaded with cars as a result of social distancing,” she says.

“But we should look to Paris, Sydney and Berlin, which are creating cycle lanes, for example, to enable social distancing, and see how we can redefine British transport infrastructure to support consumers in the same way.”

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