Would green number plates help to promote greener vehicles?

This month the British government announced a consultation on a new proposal for encouraging low emissions vehicles: green number plates.

It’s not a new idea. Norway has been identifying electric vehicles through number plates since 1999, where EVs are prefixed EL, EK or EV. Ontario introduced green lettering on white backgrounds for EVs and plug-in hybrids in 2009. After trials at the city level, China introduced green number plates nationally in 2017, and similar plates reached the roads in India for the first time this year.

There are a number of reasons why this is a good idea, the most important ones being entirely practical: it allows police and public officials to identify low emissions cars at a glance. That makes it easier to enforce simple exceptions around cleaner vehicles. For example, vehicles with green plates in Ontario can drive on ‘high occupancy lanes’ even if there’s only one person on board.

Or remember how Beijing reduced air pollution during the 2008 Olympics by rationing car travel? It was done by number plate, with odd numbers and even numbers banned on alternate days. The strategy is still used in Chinese cities from time to time during spikes in air pollution. Green plates would exempt zero emission vehicles from these bans, as they are not contributing to air pollution.

In Britain, green plates would make it easier to police low emissions zones. Traffic wardens could instantly spot non-EVs parking illegally in a charging bay. It could simplify processes for many of the local exceptions or incentives for cleaner vehicles, such as the free toll bridge access run in Southampton or the discounted parking offered by Westminster council.

Along with the police and traffic wardens, emergency responders need to know if a vehicle is electric or hybrid. With high voltage batteries on board, there is a potential risk to fire or ambulance crews. This is why hybrid and electric vehicles are marked as such on the back and the side of the vehicle. The Society of Automobile Engineers advises that first responders should be able to spot this information from 50 feet away, so green plates would be a very handy heads-up.

There are other benefits too. Green plates would make low emissions vehicles more visible, and thus help to ‘normalise’ them on the roads. People would be more aware of them, and of the rising  number of them. That might help to convince the car-buying public that electric vehicles are common in their area, and a viable option for their next car. The government certainly thinks so, with its proposal framed almost entirely around raising awareness and promoting cleaner vehicles.

And yes, it would reward the drivers of low emissions vehicles with a certain smugness dividend, if you will. But if you were taking to the comments section to declare the idea to be virtue signalling, then see above.


  1. If the virtue signalling comment was aimed at me, then for once I don’t have a problem with it. This gives the signaller their smugness while not imposing cost upon others, which is my main complaint against most virtue signalling.

    The UK car registration already gives information such as the location of first registration so extra info is all to the good.

    1. Fair enough, though it was actually in response to the press note from the Behavioural Insights Team, who brought this to the government. They say that the green plates will be a good opportunity for people to virtue signal, and overlook many of the more practical reasons for supporting the idea.

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