The solution is the problem

Can an electric Bentley really be part of a real zero carbon future? 

A response to the UK Prime Minister’s plan to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

Far from being a ‘green revolution’, this is simply business as usual, where the predict-and-provide paradigm of car ownership and road-building go hand-in-hand.

Prime minister Boris Johnson this week announced a ‘10-point plan’ for a ‘green industrial revolution’, intended to create jobs and make ‘strides towards net zero by 2050’.

Decarbonising road transport features heavily, with measures to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Plus around £2.4 billion of new funding for electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure, uptake and battery development.

Although at first glance the announcement may sound welcome, in reality it is a delaying tactic. Irrespective of the praise heaped on the ‘plan’, climate change requires immediate action, not a promise for action in ten years' time.

Business as usual

Waiting until 2030 will lock in emissions from personal transport for two more decades. It also risks locking out low-carbon alternatives to the private car that might otherwise have delivered on the UK’s Paris Agreement derived carbon budget.

The plan passes the buck of mitigating climate change to another future government, several electoral cycles down the line.

More importantly, it obliges our children to remove colossal quantities of (our) carbon directly from the atmosphere or attempt to live with the consequences of dangerous climate change.

The 10-point plans sits alongside the announcement in August 2020 of over £27 billion investment in road projects.

Far from being a ‘green revolution’, this is simply business as usual, where the predict-and-provide paradigm of car ownership and road-building go hand-in-hand.

Too little

In a carbon budget context, a policy pledge to end sales of internal combustion vehicles in ten years’ time categorically fails to address the urgency of the issue. The deadline of 2030 is too late as the entire Paris-compliant carbon budget for the car sector is used up before the policies even kick in.

We’ve written elsewhere about why we must be clear on the difference between ‘net zero’ and real zero. In short, ‘net zero’ assumes the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere at unprecedented scale, allowing emissions from fossil fuels to continue well into the second half of the century.

Should we choose not to gamble, and hand to the next generation the burden of developing and rolling out as-yet-unproven (at scale) negative emissions technologies, then we are forced to accept the hard logic of real zero.

In a world constrained by carbon budgets derived from the Paris Agreement, real zero invites a very different policy response to ‘net zero’. The PM’s latest announcement is a case in point.

While a clear market signal to remove petrol and diesel cars is absolutely necessary, the timescale and ambition of the current plan are completely at odds with the immediacy of the climate emergency.

For a fair chance of staying below 2°C, developed countries including the UK must bring about immediate and deep cuts in emissions from all sectors. That is to say, cuts of 10 to 15 percent year on year and with immediate effect.

To reiterate … starting now. Not ten years from now.

Cars

Cars are typically used for about thirteen years between initial purchase to finally being scrapped. This time-lag means that waiting until 2030 to remove petrol and diesel cars locks in emissions for another two decades.

Given that almost two-thirds of the distance driven on UK roads is by cars under nine years old, new cars bought late in this decade will still be used and emitting carbon well into the next.

Therefore, in the absence of immediate and effective policies to cut emissions, the car sector can be expected to continue to emit at its present rate for the rest of the 2020s and into the 2030s.

It has even been speculated that the signalled moratorium may trigger a short-term ‘dash for gasoline’, increasing emissions as manufacturers push their more polluting, higher profit cars, while consumers enjoy a ‘last fling’ with petrol cars.

Also problematic is the ‘hybrid loophole’ in the PM’s plan, whereby new hybrid electric vehicles remain available until 2035.

Although hybrids can be driven in electric mode, in reality 63–80 percent of the miles driven in modern plug-in hybrids are in internal combustion mode – i.e. using petrol or diesel. Again, this locks in continued emissions well into the 2040s for new hybrids bought in the mid-2030s.

Distraction

Electric vehicles have long been the darlings of technocratic governments, who see EVs as a magic-bullet for decarbonising our society. But favouring EVs as a mitigation mainstay comes with a significant opportunity cost.

Many other key sectors also urgently need a ready supply of zero-carbon electricity. Housing, industry and public services, not to mention freight transport and non-car passenger transport, all need to be rapidly decarbonised through electrification.

Even with a major shift to renewables, zero-carbon energy will remain a scarce resource for years to come. Therefore, a ‘triage’ approach is necessary; the most urgent, non-negotiable cases go to the front of the queue for zero-carbon electricity.

As such, it is neither a wise nor progressive policy to use such a scarce resource to transport a 70kg driver in a 1.5 tonne car a few kilometres to an out-of-town supermarket or to make the school run.

Locking out

Promoting private car ownership, whether conventional or electric, works against efforts to stimulate other forms of mobility and access to transport, effectively ‘locking out’ other options.

First, there’s the simple opportunity cost of continuing to back private cars. Every pound spent on charging infrastructure or road widening cannot be spent on active or public modes of transport.

Second, the cost of car ownership already excludes a significant proportion of society. This social exclusion may be exacerbated by the difficulty of home EV-charging in densely populated areas.

Moreover, the costly and disruptive roll-out of EV charging infrastructure, in already space-constrained urban settings - with thousands of miles of cables and excavations - may hinder active modes like walking if charging points encroach onto footpaths and cycleways.

Same but different

Betting everything on EVs merely ‘kicks the can down the road’ with respect to a host of other environmental and social issues.

It does nothing to address car congestion in our towns and cities. It merely swaps one resource-intensive traffic jam - petrol and diesel cars - for another - EVs.

Car infrastructure - such as roads, parking, fuelling stations, garages - takes up huge swathes of valuable real estate in our urban areas; space which is effectively denied to other users.

To this charge-sheet we must add the pollution and safety burden of widespread car use, in the forms of noise and particulate pollution from tyres, road accidents, and poor health from inactive lifestyles.

A bolder vision

Taking account of all these points, we can start to envision a much more environmentally and socially sustainable model of personal mobility. A better option would be to shift away from cars, including EVs, as the default mode for moving around within our towns and cities.

To deliver immediate cuts in emissions consistent with a 2°C-derived budget, the UK Government could set a maximum emission standard of 90gCO2/km for all new cars from 2022.

This is a level already widely available for all necessary car categories from supermini to family estate - but notably excluding heavier executive and SUV categories.

Tightening the standard by 10-15 percent each year would send a clear, but non-technology-prescriptive, signal to manufacturers. In all likelihood, electrification will be required for new cars from the mid-2020s onwards as the standard drops below 50gCO2/km.

However, in addition to tighter regulation on car emissions we should rethink the model of individual car ownership. Instead of extensively rolling out charging points and maintaining car-congested towns and cities, the development of urban and intercity public transport must be prioritised, along with the re-allocation of road-space to active modes.

Connecting with the public transport network, rental hubs could be established on the outskirts of cities where EVs can be picked up for longer journeys. Hence, we might replace streets jammed with multiple cars per household with liveable, car-free cities.

Reducing the number of cars in circulation in this way would work to reduce both total energy and resource use. It would also facilitate a faster turnover of cars within the fleet, as individual cars are utilised more effectively, hastening the throughput of efficiency improvements.

Back to the present

It is now late 2020. Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, we’ve had three decades of talk and empty promises on climate change. All the while, total emissions have continued to rise with a potentially devastating amount of warming already dialled in.

We now face a climate emergency.

What we do in the next few years, the next few months, is critical. We are the last generation that might still conceivably prevent environmental catastrophe. Bold leadership and decisive action are urgently needed.

Sadly, set against the scale and urgency of the challenge, this week’s announcement is not a plan fit for purpose – it is dangerous prevarication.

These Authors

Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change, with joint appointment between the Universities of Manchester, Uppsala and Bergen. He is a member of the Decarbonate transport network. Dan Calverley is an independent researcher with a PhD on decarbonising the UK car sector.

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