Carbon emissions from vans still rising as UK drivers cling to diesel

<span>A diesel van: drivers who go electric may find they can’t use some public charging stations, owing to size or inadequate cables.</span><span>Photograph: ThePalmer/Getty Images</span>
A diesel van: drivers who go electric may find they can’t use some public charging stations, owing to size or inadequate cables.Photograph: ThePalmer/Getty Images

Carbon emissions from vans in the UK have risen by 63% since 1990, new analysis shows, as cars are getting cleaner.

While more people are opting to drive electric or plug-in hybrid cars, van drivers still prefer diesel because electric vans are much more expensive with little choice of models.

Those who do choose an electric van find they cannot use some public electric vehicle charging stations, which can be too small or have charging cables that are too short.

Campaigners say the next government should give businesses financial incentives to pick zero emission vans and improve charging infrastructure.

Research from Transport and Environment, a clean transport and energy advocacy group, found there are a million more vans on the road since 2014, and nearly all are diesel fuelled. Although the growth of online shopping has meant more delivery vans, most are still used by small businesses or sole traders.

The steady rise adds up to a 63% increase in carbon emissions from light vans since 1990, while the rapid uptake of electric cars and taxis in the past decade means emissions from cars are down by 19% over the same period, even though the total number of cars on the road has also risen.

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Although there have been substantial reductions in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, vans are bucking that trend. Since 1990, NOx emissions from cars are down by 88% and from HGVs by 91%. But vans are down only 38% since 1990, are higher than in 2011 and overtook HGV emissions in 2015. NOx has been linked to the onset of asthma in children, and roadside emissions have remained at illegally high levels in some places.

Ralph Palmer of Transport and Environment said the rise in van emissions was “alarming”. “Despite the push for more electric vans on our roads, we are still witnessing a surge in greenhouse gas emissions from vans as a result of sustained sales of diesel vans, countering trends we are seeing in the car market,” he said.

“There’s not enough progress being made to support businesses and sole traders to make the switch.”

Oliver Lord, UK head of the Clean Cities campaign, said the UK was lagging behind European neighbours such as the Netherlands, which is working to create zero emission logistics zones.

Lord said: “It means that when you’re driving a van into their cities, if it’s registered after next year, it has to be electric. And by 2030, they’ve all got to be electric. The share of electric vans sold in the Netherlands is twice that in the UK. There’s no way we’ll clean our air and hit our climate goals unless we do more to help businesses switch away from polluting diesel vans.”

Last September, the government set out a zero emission vehicles (ZEV) mandate, which means that by the end of this year, 10% of all new van and car sales should be electric, rising to 100% by 2035. In theory, if manufacturers do not meet that target they will have to pay £15,000 for each extra diesel or petrol vehicle sold. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said 341,455 new vans were registered last year, of which 20,253 were powered by electric batteries.

Palmer said: “There are very, very generous flexibilities that have been given to automakers in the first two or three years of this scheme, which basically means that we won’t hit that 10% mark this year. But that should actually help bring far more van models to the market.”

Michael Salter-Church, sustainability director at BT subsidiary Openreach, said it had been “frustrated” by the range of vehicles on the market and the ZEV mandate was a “really important step”. “Our engineers really like them – the [lack of] noise, the ability to warm them up very quickly during winter weather,” he said.

Openreach aims to convert all of its 30,000 vans by 2031, and so far they have 4,100 battery-powered electric vans, helped by government grants of up to £5,000 a van for a maximum of 1,500 vans a year per company.“It is right to put more pressure on the manufacturers,” he said. “We were very concerned that no political party has pledged to extend the electric van grants beyond 31 March, 2025.”

Openreach has installed chargers at 2,000 of its engineers’ homes – most park at home overnight – but Salter-Church said they sometimes faced problems charging while on the road. “Quite often charging points are designed for cars, so we’ve found limited parking spaces, short cables and sometimes we found they are installed in car parks where the barrier height means vans can’t get in. Charging infrastructure needs to be improved.”