The decision to phase out the internal combustion engine heralds a new era of low-emission technologies with major implications for the auto industry, society and the environment.
“We can’t carry on with diesel and petrol cars,” U.K. environment secretary Michael Gove told the BBC on Wednesday. “There is no alternative to embracing new technology.”
Almost 2.7 million new cars were registered in the U.K. in 2016, making it the second biggest market in Europe after Germany.
Meeting the 2040 deadline will be a heavy lift. British demand for electric and fuel cell cars, as well as plug-in hybrids, grew 40 percent in 2015, but they still only accounted for less than 3 percent of the market.
Still, experts say sales of clean cars are likely to continue on their dramatic upward trajectory.
“Ending diesel and petrol car sales by 2040 is a step in the right direction but given that electric cars are coming anyway this is probably pretty irrelevant. It’s a bit like saying we’re banning the sale of steam engines by 2040,” said David Bailey, a professor of industrial strategy at Aston Business School.
Gove said the government’s air quality plan, which is set to be officially announced later on Wednesday, was needed because gasoline and diesel engines contribute to health problems, “accelerate climate change, do damage to the planet and the next generation.”
Roughly 40,000 deaths in Britain each year are attributable to outdoor air pollution, according to a study published last year by the Royal College of Physicians. Dirty air has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, among other health issues.
The problem is especially pronounced in big cities. London surpassed the European Union’s annual limit for nitrogen dioxide exposure just five days into the new year, according to King’s College. The university estimates that air pollution is responsible for 9,400 premature deaths in the city every year.
The timeline for ending sales of internal combustion engines mirrors one proposed in early July by France. President Emmanuel Macron has given the auto industry the same deadline to make the switch to cleaner tech.
“We are quite rightly in a position of global leadership when it comes to shaping new technology,” Gove said.
Other countries have been more ambitious. India is planning to stop selling gas-powered vehicles by 2030.
The German car industry and government officials will meet in early August to discuss the future of diesel engine technology. Manufacturers are trying to avoid diesel cars being banned from German towns and cities.