Nowadays, the manifestos of most political parties (rightly) include a target year by which they aim for their country to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions. Whilst these numbers can vary by multiple decades, there is an overall consensus that this is something we need to achieve soon, for the sake of our continued existence.
In the UK, by far the most common primary mode of transport is by car, as indicated in the graph below. For some time now, we have been comfortable travelling around in our own little bubbles, concealed from the outside world. Meanwhile, public transport usage has dwindled outside of cities.
The widespread use of petrol and diesel cars has an enormous impact upon the environment, especially in an era when carpooling is far less common than it was during the 20th century. As such, the governments-to-be who proclaim that the country is going to go green seem to have two options: (a) upset most of the public by banning cars entirely; or (b) offer a greener alternative to conventional automobiles.
One of the downsides of our democracy is that governments are only in power for a handful of years before they need to go for re-election. They do not want to destroy all hope of this happening by introducing a policy which will upset their voter base. Therefore, it is uncommon for governments to introduce laws which would induce economic pains to the average citizen, nor bans of things which they find useful.
By and large, the public wants the government to make the country green. However, this will mean a dramatic reduction in petrol car usage, one way or another. Dominic Lawson argues this week in the Times that it is unlikely that car-driving citizens will be very happy when they realise that they have to fork out an extra £10,000 for their next car since it has to be electric. This number is somewhat out of date – even in 2018, many electric cars were available for less than £4,000 more than the equivalent petrol car. Further, the reduced running costs of an electric car mean that the buyer can ‘break even’ within a few years. Nonetheless, unless electric cars become as cheap as petrol cars, there is always going to be upset from the car-buying public, especially those who do not have a lot of extra money to spare.
How green are electric cars?
Suppose electric cars were to become as cheap, or even cheaper than petrol ones. Suppose the government were to ban the latter and everyone started buying the former. Would this actually be a good thing?
Like any mass-produced consumer item, electric cars have to be manufactured on an industrial scale. For the most part, the next generation of electric cars will be made in China, where fossil fuels continue to be the main source of power and where environmental regulation is somewhat patchy.
In order to replace every petrol and diesel vehicle on UK roads with electric alternatives, a lot of batteries would need to be made. Battery technology is a notoriously difficult nut to crack and current solutions require an array of rare earth metals, such as cobalt and neodymium. According to Professor Richard Herrington, head of earth science at the Natural History Museum, we would need twice the annual global supply of lithium and half its supply of copper to achieve this task. Climate change being a global issue and many other countries seeking to electrify their road vehicles would surely mean that the prices of these materials would sky rocket.
In addition, using an electric car is only as green as the mode of electricity generation used to power it. If an electric car is powered using electricity generated from a fossil fuel power plant, it may even be the case that the carbon footprint is higher.
Lawson goes on to quote Tim Worstall, a former trader in rare elements, as saying that:
“VW has released the comparative numbers for its new electric Golf against the diesel version. The all-clean, all-climate-friendly version must do 120,000km [75,000 miles]”
to break even, “given the emissions required to make the thing.” So there are two ‘break-evens’ to consider: the financial cost and the cost in terms of carbon emissions.
It’s about lifestyles
I’d like to refer back to the graph I included at the beginning of this piece, which shows the slump off of public transport usage in the 1950s and 1960s and the assertion of automobile dominance thereafter. The type of car we buy is not the issue. The issue is the fact that everyone feels entitled to travel around in their own little pod, often making very similar journeys to other fellow drivers.
Of course, being able to drive somewhere is usually more convenient than waiting for a bus or cycling in the rain (although in cities like London, one of the cycle, train or underground will offer the fastest route anywhere, and the car will usually be the slowest, except for using your own feet). Further, there is an increased sense of freedom associated with driving, making it particularly important for disabled and elderly people.
I am not arguing that everyone should scrap their cars immediately. I understand that there are times when it is very useful to have a car, such as when going camping or moving house. However, there is absolutely no need for us all to be commuting and driving the kids to school² by car when there are so many other greener options available. If you live somewhere where public transport is lacking, is there an opportunity to carpool?
At the end of the day, climate change is a numbers game. If most of us can reduce our emissions significantly by cycling, walking or taking public transport much more frequently then the occasional camping trip or the existence of a small, disadvantaged proportion of the population who continue to drive regularly would hardly contribute to the overall problem.
Draw whatever conclusions you like about whether electric cars are going to save the world, but there is another, much easier way to reduce the carbon footprint of driving: drive (a lot) less.
 Not to mention how, as described in this piece, the mining of rare earth metals for products such as smartphones and laptops, as well as electric cars, much of which occurs in Africa, is riddled with exploitation.
 As argued here, driving your kids to school is probably the worst for them in terms of the level of air pollution they breath.
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