The future is green – even our number plates

Blog post posted on 04/11/19 |

Amidst the ups and downs of Brexit, the Department of Transport managed to hit the streets recently with an announcement on green number plates. Excellent, I thought. No more chunks of white and yellow plastic being dumped in our canals and landfill sites – now they will all biodegrade away to nothing. Unfortunately, that’s not quite what they meant. Instead they are part of the governments push to lower the carbon economy and to encourage us to take up electric cars. So, will they have any impact? 

According to the RAC, who have polled their members on it, the answer is – not really. The drivers they questioned don't seem too impressed. Only a fifth think it's a good idea and the majority said “the number plates wouldn't have the effect of making them any more likely to switch to an electric vehicle”.

I don’t really share the concerns raised by some that green number plates could become a ‘look at me I’m greener than you’ item that could spark resentment. But you never know – green road rage could replace the red mist!

With today’s joined up database of CCTV and ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) we can instantly find out most of a car details at the touch of a button. Insurance and tax status are all recorded centrally and adding emissions into that system should not present too much of an issue. This means that you don’t need different plates to identify the cleanest vehicles.

In terms of using the plates to link the vehicle into new incentives, then that could be a useful idea. Incentives such as bus lane access and free parking for electric vehicles have been mentioned. These have worked very well in countries such as Norway, which now have the largest market for electric vehicles in the world. This was part of a wider project to reduce costs for electric vehicles and provide a comprehensive network of chargers. 

I have been told by my NAF friends (NAF is the Norwegian equivalent of the AA) that what has happened in Norway is that so many people chose electric, that the bus lanes are now full of cars and the incentive may have to be removed. This illustrates the importance of ‘timing’ when it comes to incentives. It’s great to introduce them but when their job is done it is not so easy to remove them. The UK government has already, in my view, got this wrong by reducing the subsidy on new electric cars and hybrids too soon. At a stroke they reduced the market for hybrids, and increased demand for full electrics that the car manufacturers simply cannot yet meet.

So, in essence I have no real problem with green number plates, but it will not increase the uptake of electric vehicles by itself. There are far bigger barriers to a low emission future such as purchase cost, range anxiety and charging networks that need to be addressed urgently. Driving electric vehicles does require new skills, and incentives for training should be part of any new measures that are being brought forward. As ever, this need is not being given any high-profile support by the government. Which is a pity as getting the maximum confidence, fun and enjoyment out of your new electric car is much more likely to turn you into a convert, than the colour of your number plate!

By Neil Greig IAM RoadSmart’s director of policy and research