February 28, 2024

The number of pure battery electric cars sold in the UK has passed 1m, a milestone that reflects the rapid shift away from polluting fossil fuels that is crucial to Britain’s target to produce net zero carbon emissions.

Between 2002 and the end of January buyers registered 1,001,677 of the vehicles in the UK, according to data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the lobby group for the British industry.

While it has taken 20 years to sell 1m electric cars – or more than 120 years if taking into account the very first battery-powered vehicles – the lobby group said it was possible the industry could sell the second million within only two years, as carmakers around the world race to dominate the electric vehicle industry.

The number of electric cars on UK roads is still dwarfed by those using fossil fuels. There were 35.1m cars on UK roads in 2022, of which 650,000 were pure electric, according to the latest available data from the SMMT.

However, the UK is planning to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035, and manufacturers must sell an increasing proportion of electric cars or else face the prospect of large fines under a new zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate this year. The EU, China and several US states also have similar rules, albeit with different deadlines.

There may be some hiccups in the expansion of battery car sales. Some big carmakers, including Toyota, the Land Rover owner JLR, and Nissan, have asked the UK government to delay the ZEV mandate, arguing the rules were set too late for them to adjust their plans. Nevertheless, every major manufacturer across Europe, the US and China is racing to develop and manufacture electric models.

Carmakers sold 20,900 electric cars in January, up by 21% on the same month in 2023. However, the sales were heavily dependent on company fleets, which receive indirect subsidies. Sales to private buyers fell by a quarter.

Mike Hawes, the SMMT chief executive, called for subsidies for private electric car sales to arrest the decline. The government removed all direct subsidies for electric car sales in 2022.

“It’s taken just over 20 years to reach our million EV milestone – but with the right policies, we can double down on that success in just another two,” Hawes said.

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“Market growth is currently dependent on businesses and fleets. Government must therefore use the upcoming budget to support private EV buyers, temporarily halving VAT to cut carbon, drive economic growth and help everyone make the switch.”

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