UK delays combustion engine ban to 2035

Published: 20 September 2023 Updated: 20 September 2023

► Prime minister delays ICE ban to 2035
► Move brings UK in line with rest of EU
► Net zero cop-out? Or pragmatic reality?

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has announced a delay in the introduction of the internal combustion engine ban, pushing back Britain’s switchover from 2030 to 2035. The PM announced several U-turns on environmental policy in a speech at Downing Street on 20 September 2023, ending months of speculation that Boris Johnson’s transition to electric would be fudged. 

The target of net-zero by 2050 is still very much the goal, Sunak claimed, despite the five-year delay to phasing out petrol and diesel cars. ‘To give us more time to prepare, we’re going to ease the transition to electric vehicles,’ he said. ‘You’ll still be able to buy a combustion-engined vehicle until 2035.’

The move brings the UK’s policy in line with the rest of the EU and Canada, giving the government more time to improve the charging infrastructure of the UK and for the price of electric cars to reach parity with their combustion equivalents.

However, the delay has angered many in the car industry, which has spent millions preparing for the 2030 switchover. Read on for our full analysis of what the dramatic government U-turn means.

Reaction to the UK delaying the cumbustion engine ban

Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK (speaking before Sunak’s speech): ‘Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.’

Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister: ‘We’re going to ease the transition to electric vehicles. You’ll still be able to buy petrol and diesel cars and vans until 2035. Even after that, you’ll still be able to buy and sell them secondhand.’

Andy Palmer, former Aston Martin chief and Nissan engineering boss: ‘If there’s one thing car companies hate, it’s uncertainty. Today’s announcement to row back on the 2030 EV target will have spooked a number of car manufacturers who are looking at the UK as a potential destination for their investment.’

Sue Robinson, chief executive of the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA): ‘This change will likely create further uncertainty for the industry, however, it does align the UK automotive industry with the European Union, its largest international trading partner, and automotive dealers support this.’

Chris Mason, BBC political editor: ‘Behind his mild-mannered demeanour, this was an excoriating demolition of the Conservative governments that came before his, some of which Rishi Sunak was a member of. Boris Johnson didn’t get a mention, but boy his ideas and instincts were shredded – painted as shallow and un-thought through.’

Maria Bengtsson, Ernst & Young electric vehicle lead: ‘The delay to the 2030 ban on the sale of new Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles could cause significant disruption for the automotive sector including Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), dealers, businesses and consumers, given the extensive preparations made across the industry for the original deadline. It may also risk a loss of momentum just as the industry was preparing for the next phase of the EV transition, moving out of the early adoption phase and into a pursuit of mass market uptake.’

Al Gore, former vice president and environmental campaigner: ‘Speaking from a global perspective, if I may, it’s certainly shocking and disappointing, particularly at a time when the rest of the world is struggling to move in the right direction, to have a leader of the UK… turn back in the wrong direction.’

Vote winner or environmental misstep?

Rumours of a U-turn on the original 2030 combustion engine ban surfaced earlier this year, following the unexpected Conservative party victory in the by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

London traffic, taxis and busses

Conservative and Labour campaigners reckon the driving force for the Labour defeat was locals’ resistance to the expanding Ultra Low Emission Zone. The ULEZ expansion is being pedalled by the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan – but Tory voters showed their rejection of this green policy with their ballots in the by-election. 

It’s surely no coincidence that Sunak has proposed a potentially vote-winning delay less than two years before the next general election…

What does the delay to the 2030 combustion engine ban mean?

The change is certain to irritate car manufacturers. They’re already dealing with the bureaucratic mountain of Brexit paperwork to simply get their cars into the UK – but because Britain is still an important market, they’ve persevered. Many have built their product plans around the 2030 deadline.

Car makers will have spent millions of pounds pushing their newest hybrid and electric cars through their development cycles faster than was legally required – only for the government to move the goalposts. That’ll shake their confidence in the market.

Renault factory: Austral SUV being assembled

Earlier this year, CAR magazine reached out to two of Europe’s biggest car manufacturer; the Volkswagen Group and Stellantis, for insight into how a policy change would affect their plans. VW declined to comment, but Stellantis did – and it seemed unfazed by a U-turn.

A spokesperson said: ‘Stellantis is committed to achieve 100% zero-emission new car and van sales in the UK and Europe by 2030. Our range will progressively move towards 100% electric, ahead of legislation. For example, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and DS becoming fully electric by 2027 and Vauxhall by 2028. Furthermore, ahead of the competition, as outlined in our Dare Forward 2030 plan, we will be carbon net zero by 2038.’

Hyundai Ioniq 6 charging at an Ionity EV charger

Background: why Boris Johnson picked 2030 for the UK’s petrol and diesel car ban

The UK government first proposed the ban on new petrol and diesel cars in 2020, back in the chaotic period when Boris Johnson was in Number 10. Originally, the deadline for the ban was set for 2040, but it was later moved to 2035 and then eventually to 2030 as part of a 10-point plan for the UK to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Johnson’s original policy would have banned all new cars powered purely by petrol and diesel engines by 2030, while plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) would be allowed to stick around until 2035.

It’s worth pointing out, if you have an older petrol or diesel car by 2035, you’ll still be permitted to drive it on the road. However, we expect the existing car stock will be taxed to the hilt by then, to encourage drivers to buy new EVs. The rules prohibit the registration of new combustion engine vehicles after that date.

Ministers claim that 40,000 premature deaths each year are caused by pollution – and the 2035 ban forms part of a wide range of measures designed to clean up Britain’s air quality.

Exhaust pipe

Then prime minister Boris Johnson outlined the most salient aspects of the policy when it launched. He explained: ‘The government will invest more than £2.8 billion in electric vehicles, lacing the land with charging points and creating long-lasting batteries in UK gigafactories.’

Politics can be fickle: how quickly things change…

By Curtis Moldrich

CAR's Digital Editor, F1 and sim-racing enthusiast. Partial to clever tech and sports bikes