Tracking the decline of the combustion engine

Since 2016, transport has been the largest contributor to Britain’s carbon emissions. Most of that is cars, making car culture a huge challenge on the way to a zero carbon future. Shifting car habits starts with active transport and public transport, but private cars will be with us for the foreseeable future, leaving a major role for electric cars.

There is some notable progress to report here. In 2016, the same year that transport overtook energy to become carbon problem number one, only 1% of new cars sold were electric. Sales remained low for the rest of the decade, and then something began to shift. Over the last three years, there has been more choice on the market. There are cheaper options and more opportunities for leasing. Electric cars have grown in popularity, helped along by some high oil prices recently. We can now trace the beginnings of the electric transport transition.

This is a graph from Carbon Tracker, from some new research into electric cars. It plots the decline of internal combustion engine vehicles (ICE) at the top, and the growing market share of battery electric vehicles (BEV) at the bottom:

As the graph shows, by the end of 2022 electric cars had crossed the 20% line for new cars sold. If this trend continues into the new year, we could be looking at one in three by the end of this year, and half of all cars sold not long afterwards.

That could still be delayed or derailed. There’s a real race going on to install car chargers and keep ahead of demand. There are teething problems in various networks, and bad experiences may slow demand for electric cars. They still get a lot of bad press, and the tabloids are behind the times on their coverage. (I expect that will change this year as they realise that their readers are taking EVs more seriously, and maybe Jeremy Clarkson will be put out to pasture – we can hope.) Government policy remains unpredictable on, well, everything to be honest – but particularly on the environment. Bizarre and contradictory policies abound on solar, wind and even coal.

There’s still a longer story to tell here of course, as we’re only talking about new cars sold in this graph. The overall phase-out of ICE cars will take a good deal longer. Nevertheless, the transition is well underway. The end of fossil fuels burned in private cars is in sight.


  1. I believe the goal is, or should be, a reduction in the number and use of any kind of cars. More and better publuc transportation and designing living spacing that rnviueage mire walking should be the policy

      1. I saw your saying cars would be around fir a long time in your first paragraph, and I did not like reading it. I thought you were giving up to easily on reducing the number of vehicles sooner rather than later. The rest of the post was supporting electric vehicles instead of reducing the total number. of vehicles.

        1. And I don’t like writing it! It’s being realistic rather than giving up. Our entire urban geography is set up for cars. Cars are a deeply engrained habit, and public and active transport has been neglected. Some people need a car for their work. There are areas where it is difficult to live without a car – not just in the countryside, but sadly in suburban areas built around the assumption that people will have cars. These places won’t be bulldozed and rebuilt with greater density any time soon. Even if the long term goal is for their to be far fewer cars – I’d hope for 80 to 90% fewer eventually – they are still going to be around for the foreseeable future, no?

          We can’t transition to sustainable transport with electric cars on their own, but it we won’t do it without the either.

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