This ban on polluting vehicles proves the green revolution is coming – businesses must adapt, and fast

The government is clearly justified in making the announcement—the ban will clean up our air and help tackle global warming. But the real change is only just beginning.

You’ve got to hand it to Environment Secretary Michael Gove, he’s a quick learner with an instinctive grasp of how to control an agenda. The recent announcement that the UK will follow France in banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 dominated the news. A spectrum of papers ran it on their front pages and TV crews were hastily despatched on a search for electric vehicle charging points to juxtapose with ubiquitous close up footage of car exhaust fumes. The announcement makes it clear that belching emissions from the rear end of a car is set to become the social equivalent of lighting up a cigarette in a restaurant—just not allowed.

The question of how governments drive social change on this scale is fascinating. I’m a longtime believer in competitive market-based policies to uncover least cost solutions. But sometimes there’s nothing like a simple ban to cut through the smog of scandal, celebrity gossip and disinformation masquerading as news, to land in company executive in-trays with a resounding thud. Precipitous drops in smoking were undoubtedly triggered by the ban on smoking in public places. Taxation, labelling policies and advances in alternatives that deliver the nicotine hit minus the harm all contributed, but the policy that reached every single smoker and tobacco firm overnight was the sudden change in where it was acceptable to light up.

There are obvious parallels with the public health challenge posed by the burning of fossil fuels in close proximity to humans. By announcing a complete ban on the internal combustion engine, even one 23 years hence, the government has effectively removed the social license of those car manufacturers and oil companies, who have for too long undermined efforts to rein in their impact on our lungs and the planet. General awareness of the problem of air pollution is rising thanks to publicly available data and the action of numerous campaign groups. Local governments of every hue will feel emboldened to act. More people will decide to try out an electric alternative and as ranges extend and prices fall they’ll be pleasantly surprised at how good it feels to drive around with a clear conscience. I can’t be the only protective mother increasingly feeling justified in knocking on the windows of idling cars parked next to schools asking for engines to be switched off. I suspect it won’t be long before deciding to own a fossil fuel car purely on the basis of cost will be seen as unacceptably selfish and irresponsible.

The human health issue is just one factor supporting the proposed ban. Regular breaches in air quality standards are usually in densely populated, traffic-blighted areas. A long distance but attention grabbing ban does nothing immediately to address this and more targeted local action is needed now. And if it were just a question of human health, the ban would not need to apply in the majority of rural areas. The real reason supporting a comprehensive ban is climate change.

With virtually all of the world, bar the current incumbents of the White House, committed to trying to avert a global disaster, all large sources of greenhouse gas emissions can expect to have their social licenses to operate steadily removed. Sometimes this will be achieved through relatively unnoticed government policies charging for pollution and supporting cleaner alternatives until the point they can out compete their dirty rivals. Sometimes it will happen naturally through the march of technological progress. Other times more direct interventions will occur. Betting on this not happening will prove costly and industries and investors reliant on the status quo need to start enacting plans to adapt.

The last 23 years saw a revolution in computing and information technology, lighting the touch paper for further revolutions in almost every sector of the economy. This coupled with growing public support for action to protect us will mean well before 2040 our lives will once again be transformed, resulting in healthier, more human-centric cities and new sources of growth and employment.

The UK government was right to make this announcement—there will be inevitable attempts by vested interests to derail it but ministers need to stand firm and underscore the pledge in legislation, combining it with their existing plans to make the uptake of electric vehicles easier and more easily integrated with the Grid. If they do there will be strong cross party support—something we could do with an injection of right now.

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