The fact that electric cars are far from “zero carbon” gets lost. The fact that, if we don’t want global temperatures to go more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, emissions will have to be cut at more than twice the rate the government intends, gets lost too.
The voices of researchers who actually study the role of transport systems in the climate crisis need to be amplified.
Although the 2030 phase out of petrol and diesel cars is welcome, “in reality it is a delaying tactic”, argued climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Dan Calverley in response to the ten-point plan. “Climate change requires immediate action, not a promise for action in ten years.”
They add: "The plan passes the buck of mitigating climate change to another 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."
They conclude: "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."
That last point was echoed by Nick Eyre of the Centre for Research on Energy Demand Solutions, a prominent UK energy policy researcher. The government plan is “very far from a coherent strategy”, he wrote.
It “reads like a shopping list of interesting technologies that might be grafted on to the existing energy system” but “fails to recognise the more fundamental needs for change and links to other policy areas”.
The plan mentions £9.2 billion for public transport, cycling and walking. But “on closer inspection, none of this is new money”, Eyre pointed out. So that would just put pressure on austerity-damaged local councils … while the £27 billion road building plan stays in place – albeit under legal challenge.
For transport researchers, the electric-car-focused plan was proof of government indifference to their calls for integrated transport policy that reduces the number of car journeys, and the speed and number of cars, and boosts public transport, cycling and walking.
“If we really were committed to reducing climate-damaging carbon emissions," wrote John Whitelegg of the Foundation for Integrated Transport, "we would cancel road building and switch all the funding to world-best joined up thinking about transport”.
But of course the government is not really committed, at all. And Whitelegg pointed to one reason why … car culture, that is such a key element of 21st century capitalism.
"The prioritisation of cars goes deeper. We allocate huge amounts of space to cars that could very easily be used for green space, affordable housing, trees and parks.
"We encourage anti-social, unpleasant pavement parking in residential areas so that children and other pedestrians have to walk in the middle of the road. There is no space for anyone with a pushchair or wheel chair.
"The car takes up space that belongs to the people and this is ignored by councils and central government."
University-based transport researchers have churned out dozens of articles, over years, explaining ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
A recent one highlighted that in order to meet the climate targets implied in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the UK would need, first, to ban hybrid cars (that can run on either petrol or electricity) as well as petrol and diesel ones, and, second, support “lifestyle and social change” that would alter the nature of journeys people need or want to make, and encourage non-car ways of making them.
"Only the earlier phase-outs [of fossil-fuel-heavy vehicles] combined with lower demand for mobility and car ownership would make significant contributions to an emissions pathway that is both Paris-compliant and meets legislated urban air quality limits."
Engineering researchers come to similar conclusions via a different route. They reason that the best way to slash fuel use quickly – not in ten years’ time – is to cut the total weight of cars on the road.
Researchers at Cambridge published analysis showing that “fostering vehicle weight reduction” could save more emissions by 2050 than current policies that focus on electrification – unless there is “an extreme decarbonisation” of the UK’s electricity grid, e.g. more than 50 percent.
Simple. Obvious. But resisted tooth and nail by motor manufacturers.
Thanks in large part to those companies, the average weight of cars in Europe has risen from 1320 kg in 2005 – when they already knew fine well about global warming – to more than 1400 kg now.
Cars on average carry 1.8 people, who weigh on average about one-twelfth of that, “so almost all petrol is used to move the car, not the people”, says the Absolute Zero report, which proposes how the UK could go to zero carbon with current technologies.
The authors’ scenarios imply that the UK could get to a place where non-fossil electricity generation is three times the current level, and transport without fossil fuels uses 60 percent of the energy it uses now.
And that would mean "either vehicles are modified – with regenerative braking, reduced drag and rolling resistance (better tyres), and weight reductions, or we can choose to use them less – through ride-sharing, better freight management or an overall reduction in distance travelled."
Simple. Obvious. And because the motor manufacturers won’t hear of it, the government keeps away from it.
Changing transport systems, so that we can live more happily with fewer vehicle-kilometres, is not just about cars, or even just the roads and parking spaces. It is also about the design and layout of the cities in which we live.
Current transport and land use planning practice is “fundamentally unsustainable” at a time of climate emergency, warned a report last month by the Royal Town Planning Institute - hardly a bunch of rebellious eco-warriors.
It called for urban planning to be turned upside down to avoid locking-in “car dependent lifestyles”.
The report proposed a four-step pathway. The fourth step is “fuel switching”, i.e. electrification of transport.
But before that, the report urged, (i) “all new development” has to be “planned, designed and delivered to achieve net zero transport emissions”; (ii) demand for transport should be reduced “through local living”, i.e. remaking cities so that necessities (schools, doctors, shops, and so on) are within walking distance; and (iii) government should encourage a shift from private vehicles to walking, cycling and public transport.
Simple. Obvious. But of no interest to the property developers who rule the roost in urban planning.
Since policy is influenced so profoundly by the relations of wealth and power in society – by the motor manufacturers and property developers, by car culture –researchers who seek to advise government sometimes wonder whether they are hitting their heads against a brick wall.
Jillian Anable, one of the UK’s foremost transport specialists, vented her frustration at the University Transport Studies Group conference in 2019. “We are letting more and more water on board our Titanic, while our implements to bale ourselves out are getting increasingly ineffectual”, she said.
Three decades into the climate crisis, the transport sector is 98 percent dependent on fossil fuels, she reminded her colleagues.
“We need a profoundly more challenging mitigation agenda than the academic community has countenanced to date”, she argued. “We have to expose the gap between current measures and what needs to happen.”
To “produce the knowledge we need to tell the truth”, research needs to go further, to “challenge the dominant frame held by policymakers” of “neoclassical engineering and microeconomic approaches”.
By implication at least, this call to go further was answered by Giulio Mattioli and his colleagues in an article published last year that highlighted five key elements of the “car-dependent transport system”: (i) the automotive industry; (ii) provision of car infrastructure; (iii) the political economy of urban sprawl; (iv) the provision of public transport; and (v) cultures of car consumption.
This thorough analysis of the social and economic drivers obstructing decarbonisation concludes: "Alternatives to car-dependent transport systems will have to be civic-minded, strategically coordinated for the public good […] Such alternatives can not benefit from a purported technocratic or apolitical presentation: instead, they should be argued for on the firm grounds of public coordination and delivery of public goods for all, while continually exposing the hidden workings of car-dependent transport systems."
This goes way beyond the framework of advising government that constrains so much work.
It underlines that the rift between research and politics – which has been so dramatically exposed in the last year with respect to the coronavirus – runs deep when it comes to climate change.
In the UK, this gulf between rational thinking and politics is deepened by the Labour party’s crisis. There is no functioning political opposition to the dysfunctional government.
Labour’s wimpish response to the government’s ten-point plan was just a symptom. Its own muddled climate policy is tied to discredited notions of pumping up “economic growth”. In fact the “green industrial revolution” slogan was coined by Labour and then stolen from it, and made infinitely more vacuous, by Boris Johnson and his corrupt cronies.
The gap between words and actions runs through Labour’s climate policies as it does the government’s. London mayor Sadiq Khan, arguably Labour’s most powerful elected politician, talks about tackling climate change – but his biggest spending decision has been to go ahead with the £2 billion Silvertown Tunnel project, which would help ensure there is more traffic in the coming decades, when it’s so vital that there is less.
The Labour-controlled Greater London Authority have simply ignored the reality that more roads produce more traffic, and defended the tunnel with the false argument – identical to the government’s – that electrification will make traffic “zero carbon”.
As campaigners in London (me included) have shown, the tunnel project is incompatible with London’s own emissions reductions targets, let alone those implied by the Paris climate conference.
So while politicians enthuse about electric cars, and motor manufacturers use them as greenwash, all the carbon emissions reductions from electric car use are being wiped out by the relentless rise in SUV use.
In 2020, a global reduction of oil use of about 2 million tonnes (40,000 barrels a day), achieved by people switching to electric cars, was “completely cancelled out by the growth in SUV sales over the same period”, research published last month by the International Energy Agency (IEA) showed.
While more than three million electric and hybrid vehicles were sold in 2020, SUV sales fell – but only to about 27 million, bringing the world’s total SUV fleet to more than 280 million, up from less than 50 million in 2010.
And the SUVs made a noticeable contribution to climate change. Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions fell by about seven percent in 2020, across all the categories the IEA tracks … except those from SUVs, which edged up by 0.5 percent.
What’s more, the electric vehicles being sold are getting larger and heavier, on average, earlier IEA research showed.
Clearly, meaningful action to tackle climate change and make city life better means cutting the total number of cars on the road.
It means communities fighting for investment in cheap and free public transport and infrastructure for cycling, walking and genuinely energy-saving transport modes such as electric scooters. It means combating the influence of motor manufacturers and the car culture on which they thrive.
It means social and labour movements making common cause with workers in the motor industry, to seek ways to use their skills, without producing climate-wrecking gas guzzlers – as is starting to happen with aviation workers.
And it means recognising that electric cars – which, over the long term, can combine with fossil-free electricity generation as a means of transport – are not a short- or medium term fix for the climate emergency.
Simon Pirani is an energy researcher and historian. His most recent book is Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto 2018). He blogs at People and Nature and tweets as @SimonPirani1.