UK admits giving concessions on hybrids to protect car plants

The UK introduced key concessions into its rules to decarbonise new vehicles to try and protect the future of British plants owned by Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Nissan.

Plans were unveiled last month to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, but allow purchases of some hybrids until 2035.

A last-minute modification, buried in the proposals, to allow the sale of “full hybrids” — such as the cars made by Toyota and Nissan that have lower emissions than petrol-only models but limited electric-only range — has angered green groups, which say it undermines the policy.

“We took that approach because we listened to the industry, and we recognise how important they are to the manufacturing base of this country,” transport minister Rachel Maclean told the Financial Times’ Future of Mobility summit.

“We also recognise that hybrid technology can be a step for people, when they do have a hybrid it often helps them to gather confidence to make that purchase of a fully electric vehicle later.”

The change was designed to protect the UK’s fragile network of car plants, which are already squeezed by falling sales at home and uncertainty over Brexit since the referendum in 2016.

Honda and Ford have both announced UK plant closures in the past two years, while Nissan in 2019 ditched plans to build additional models in its Sunderland factory.

After several delays, Nissan will begin producing a hybrid version of the Qashqai car at Sunderland next year, while more than 90 per cent of the cars rolling off the lines at Toyota’s site at Burnaston are hybrid.

Ministers are keenly aware of the need to keep onside international auto executives, whose reports to their overseas headquarters are essential to secure future investment in the UK. Together the two companies support tens of thousands of jobs in the UK.

Hours after announcing the 2030 plans, prime minister Boris Johnson moved to reassure the sector and joined an online meeting of business executives, including Nissan Europe boss Gianluca de Ficchy, who were discussing the proposals.

How generous the concession is will boil down to the exact parameters of hybrids that are allowed to be sold, which is due to be thrashed out in a consultation next year.

The measures state that hybrids will be allowed “if they have the capability to drive a significant distance with zero emissions”, a phrase that will be fiercely debated.

Toyota’s hybrid system, which it has been selling in the Prius for 20 years, is the reason the Japanese giant has one of the lowest average CO2 emissions per car of any maker in Europe, despite not selling a single fully electric vehicle.

The company believes that more than 60 per cent of any urban trip runs on zero emission, though intermittently as the engine cuts in and out to recharge the battery.

In contrast, plug-in hybrids such as those produced by BMW and Volvo that charge at a wallbox are able to drive for dozens of miles on their battery alone, although larger batteries make this technology far more expensive.

Both systems eliminate the “range anxiety” of electric-only cars, because the engine in the vehicle cuts in when the battery drops too low.

Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo’s chief executive, last week said the brand may stop selling hybrids completely and switch to full electric cars before the end of the decade.

“I would be surprised if we wouldn’t deliver only electric cars from 2030,” he told the FT’s Future of the Car summit.

In a highly unusual move for Toyota, which is one of the UK’s most loyal auto investors and naturally averse to threatening language, the company previously warned that it would not invest in its British operations in future if the system was outlawed.

Both Nissan and Toyota will struggle to convince their respective headquarters in Japan to invest in Britain if they cannot sell the cars they produce in the UK.

“If you can’t sell the product where you make it, that’s a challenging pitch,” said one industry insider.

Yet the consideration “completely undermines” the headline phase-out date of 2030, according to Doug Parr, chief scientist at environment group Greenpeace UK. 

“If we’re not having hybrids that go many miles, 50, 60, or 70, then we are really talking about a 2035 ban, not a 2030 ban,” he said.

“It’s hard to imagine there will be many cars that are not hybrids by 2030 anyway.”

Currently 22 per cent of cars sold in the UK are the type of vehicle that may be permitted, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

But an EU-wide rule, likely to be replicated in Britain’s post-Brexit requirements, will require average CO2 emissions per vehicle to be cut by 37.5 per cent by the end of the decade compared with the start, something that will wipe out all but a handful of internal combustion engines.

Forecasts from LMC, a data company, compiled before the UK measures were produced, expected engine-only vehicles to account for just 8 per cent of sales by the end of the decade, with battery cars expected to rise to 40 per cent of sales.

The rest will be various types of hybrid or hydrogen fuel cell cars. How many are permitted beyond 2030 is, according to Mr Parr, “a battle still to come”.

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