The protection of the environment from pollution is important for our health and for future generations. But in the end it is the free market and consumer choice which ought to decide — not politicians who have consistently shown themselves to be both incompetent and wrong when it comes to looking after our transport and energy needs.
Earlier this year, car buyers were encouraged to take advantage of the Government’s new environmentally friendly decision to exempt from road tax all electric cars with zero carbon emissions that cost less than £40,000.
Intrigued to see the choices that might be available, I visited a Mitsubishi dealer. The hottest model on the forecourt in this category was the latest hybrid Sports Utility Vehicle.
A salesman told me that if I was interested in buying it and wanted to avoid the slow process of recharging the car overnight using my domestic electricity supply, he could install a more powerful charger on my driveway for free.
I had never realised that owning an electric car involved such a daily palaver. So, put off by the idea of having to plug in the car every night and the potential for overloading our house’s electric circuits, I did not proceed any further.
Instead, I went back down the traditional fossil fuel route. I did so reluctantly, considering that petrol, and particularly diesel, engines clearly produce polluting and lethally noxious fumes.
Like many others over the past decades, I feel I have been a victim of irresponsibly confusing messages from government ministers and the motor industry.
It has been a long saga. First, everyone was urged to buy a car fuelled by unleaded petrol, which doesn’t emit as many harmful substances nor damage a car’s exhaust and spark plugs.
Then we were assured by Tony Blair’s Labour government that diesel was cleaner than petrol and we were given financial incentives to buy diesel vehicles.
Some years later we were told that toxic particles from diesel vehicles can work their way through the lungs and into the bloodstream, raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
On top of this, we were told lies by car manufacturers — such as Volkswagen — as they deceived us by cheating in emissions tests to pretend their products were less polluting than they actually were.
And so, as the Government announces its latest oh-so-clever green policy — levies on diesel vehicles in heavily-polluted areas and banning all petrol and diesel vehicles from Britain’s roads from 2040 — it is not surprising that we motorists are deeply distrustful of any environmental initiative involving politicians.
True, the futuristic idea of odourless, quiet and perhaps driverless cars travelling down motorways and pootling around our cities may appear to be a green utopia. But Government policies seem to be woefully thought-out and I fear the true economic (and environmental) costs of this new Nirvana will be enormous.
For the 2040 ban will mean changing from a society where currently less than 5 per cent of the cars registered (about 90,000) have a form of electric power to 100 per cent (nine million cars) in just 22 years.
Such an ambition must be hubris. The ineluctable truth is that a big increase in the number of electric vehicles on our roads will place a massive demand on our already over-stretched electricity supply.
The National Grid has said it could see peak electricity demand jump by more than the capacity of the planned Hinkley Point C nuclear power station by 2030. (It is hoped the plant will provide 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity.)
The drain on supply from millions of car batteries being charged would reverse the trend in recent years of falling electricity demand, driven by energy efficiency measures.
This is pie-in-the sky politics with little thought given to where the extra electricity will come from. Unless, of course, ministers want to plaster more of the countryside with wind turbines — which a government adviser once admitted that, even if ten per cent of Britain was covered with them, would generate only one sixth of the nation’s energy needs.
Even without electric cars, there are fears of future blackouts during winter cold spells.
What’s more, Britain is increasingly dependent on foreign suppliers for electricity — with pipelines coming from the Continent and with giants such as France’s EDF running our nuclear power stations.
This means that not only do we risk losing supply during bad weather, but we are also dependent on good relations with foreign governments.
As for the Government’s energy strategy, the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant has been described by the National Audit Office (NAO) as ‘risky and expensive’ and having ‘uncertain’ economic benefits.
Also, it threatens to be a bad deal for consumers. EDF and China General Nuclear, which are building the plant, will be paid a guaranteed £92.50 per megawatt hour, rising with inflation for 35 years. The NAO says this amounts to a £30 billion subsidy — or between £10 and £15 on an average household’s annual bill….
And there is another paradox about the Government’s obsession with electric vehicles. For this is a time in history when the availability of carbon fuels has never been so great.
Gone is all apocalyptic talk of ‘peak oil’, of the oil producers’ cartel OPEC pushing up the price of a barrel of crude oil and of reserves drying up.
The truth is that the fracking boom means America is almost oil and gas self-sufficient and no longer dependent on the Middle East. Techniques which allow safer deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic also have vastly increased sources of supply.
So confident is the U.S. of having an energy surplus that it has signed long-term contracts with Centrica, owner of British Gas, to provide the UK with large quantities of liquified natural gas.
The high level of U.S. production, together with renewed output from Iran and Iraq, countries absent from global markets for many years, means that crude oil prices have more than halved in price from $100-a-barrel in recent years.
How perverse, therefore, with technology making diesel and petrol engines cleaner than ever, for British motorists to be forced to swap a fairly cheap source of energy for one which is going to be hugely costly.
No one in government has even told us the cost of spending millions of unnecessary money on the National Grid in order to supply electricity to all those new plug-points.
Moreover, there has not been any discussion of the safety impact of building electricity pillars in homes. Already, there are fears that circuit-breakers would pop under strain, thus cutting off supplies.
All these important issues are ones that Government ministers seem to be ignoring.
How ironic, too, at a time when new petrol and even diesel cars are so much less polluting as a result of catalytic converters and purifying technologies, that Environment Secretary Michael Gove talks about bans and tolls on the most polluted roads.