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The end of petrol and diesel cars is in sight – but are the alternatives good enough? November 2020

(Image by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong from Pixabay )

Government announced this week that from 2030, sales in the UK of new fossil-fuelled cars will end. On the face of it, this is a positive move to help combat climate change and local air pollution. But how positive? As usual the devil’s in the detail.

The Foundation for Integrated Transport commented – “ It [the ban] is not fast enough, early enough and big enough to help achieve our climate ambitions.

Unfortunately, a focus on the technology that powers cars fails to deal with the important issue of how we will move around by 2030 and the potential for delivering huge reductions in transport carbon by shifting trips from the car to walk, cycle and bus depending on distance and journey purpose”. More here

And think-tank New Automotive said that banning the sale of new fossil fuel cars by 2030 would still leave 21m polluting passenger vehicles on the road by the end of the decade, compared with 31m today. This would mean that almost two-thirds of the miles travelled by car in the UK would be in polluting passenger vehicles, rather than the even split between electric and fossil fuel “car miles” needed to meet the government’s interim climate targets.

In summary – these commentators say there is not enough emphasis on getting people out of their cars to reduce mileage, and that the plan still leaves a huge number of carbon-emitting cars on the road after 2030. Views we fully endorse.

Switching to electric cars will no doubt reduce GHG emissions and create jobs, but the wider environmental and social implications need careful consideration before we charge ahead.

When considering the role of electric cars, let’s remember:

  • No car can be built or operated ‘zero carbon’.

  • No electricity is - or can be ‘zero carbon’.

  • All cars are extremely heavy compared to their cargo, meaning they are very wasteful of energy.

  • Electric cars are even heavier, so they use and waste more energy than conventional cars.

  • A typical electric car weighs over 1500 kg, with a battery weighing 400kg, and is mostly used to transport one person. An electric bike weighs 20kg and has a battery weighing less than 5kg.

  • The bigger and more complex a car, and the more it is driven, the higher its environmental impact.

  • Cars with lower emissions are being put forward as a justification for road building.

  • Roads cannot be built or operated ‘zero carbon’.

Electric cars need a lot of metals and that is a problem.

This problem not visible to UK consumers because the materials are mostly produced in other countries.

Lithium ion batteries with a capacity of 50 kWh - commonly used in vehicles such as Tesla’s “mid-range” Model E - typically contain around 32 kg of nickel, 11 kg of cobalt, 10 kg of manganese, 6 kg of lithium and over 50 kg of graphite. The car, which weighs in at 1,847 kg, also contains steel, aluminium, copper and plastics, as well as rare earths such as neodymium.

All of these raw materials have to be mined, transported and processed into battery cells and other parts. The production processes require enormous amounts of water and energy, especially oil and electricity, and produce huge amounts of toxic tailings, waste and sewage. And, the industries involved don’t have the best human rights records.

Simply replacing the more than 900 million combustion-engined vehicles on the road across the world today with electric versions is anything but environmentally friendly and climate-neutral. It will require the extraction and processing of billions of tons of raw materials, and impact negatively on the lives of workers in producer countries.

Before ‘Dieselgate’, switching from petrol to diesel was in vogue to address climate change. After the truth emerged that diesel cars are not much better for the environment overall, there were regrets and recriminations. Worth remembering before we go full speed ahead with electric cars?

Fuelling electric cars is far from straightforward. In many ways.

Much has been written about the need for a widespread network of charging points to support the switch to electric cars, and the stresses placed on the electricity grid to deal with peaks in demand when commuters arrive home and plug in. But one point hasn’t so far had a lot of coverage – the potential for those who live in particular types of housing to be disadvantaged.

A car that takes at least 30 minutes to “fill up” compared to just a few minutes for a diesel car means we would need many more charging points than today’s fuel pumps. True, many of these can be at people’s homes, but those who live in a street with no off-road parking or in a block of flats, would have to rely on public charging points (for example in lampposts) or at filling stations.

An EV owner in that position will have to buy electricity for their car at the rate levied by the operator of the public charging point or filling station. In contrast, the occupier of a house with a drive can use cheaper electricity on their home tariff, and can take advantage of overnight economy 7 type tariffs, and in the future with smart metering, be able to buy electricity at advantageous rates throughout the day. Or even sell energy stored in their car’s battery back to the grid.

It remains to be seen just how big the gap will be between pricing for the fortunate with a driveway and for those who can’t charge from home. But it seems the days when everyone could seek out the best deal on fuel pricing may be ending.

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