Any contemporary discussion about the environmental, health and social problems associated with mass car use will inevitably turn to electric vehicles (EVs). Plainly there may be some advantages to their use compared to that of current petrol or diesel (ICE) cars – but how much? More importantly, does the focus on EVs overall hold the potential for being a major diversion from where our concerns should be, rather than their use being some kind of step forward. Will EVs turn out to be a part of the problem rather than its solution?
What are the advantages of EVs?
(Note: when referring to electric vehicles (EVs) I mean the “best” electric vehicles, namely pure electric rather than hybrid or plug-in hybrid. I also refer essentially to cars and vans, although the same claims for EVs apply to electric motorcycles: there are prospects for electric HGVs, although our concern is now for the replacement of diesel and petrol driven (ICE) cars and vans.)
EVs have three potential advantages over internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles:
1. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions. By running off electricity potentially produced by fuels (nuclear, solar or other renewables like wind) other than fossil fuels (FFs) like oil, they have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GG) emissions. The transport sector is a major contributor to GG emissions, so obviously any reduction in these emissions from it may have the potential for cutting GG emissions overall. This is the principal reason for producing and using EVs. Relatively minor advantages are:
2. Cutting noxious emissions. Eliminating pollutants such as the NOx (nitrogen oxide) gases can play a big part in cleaning up the air we breathe.
3. Reducing noise pollution. While less of a public health problem than the above, this is still an issue. Safety concerns, particularly for visually impaired people, can be addressed by installing (minor) sound making devices to alert other road users.
Other issues are:
4. Energy security. A disadvantage of ICE vehicles is dependence on oil. Although oil is unlikely to “run out”, there are still advantages from not being dependent on oil: however, the UK is far from being self-sufficient in energy and this is not an issue that gets much discussion in current debates.
5. UK employment. At the 2019 Labour Party conference the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell announced a proposal for interest free loans for EV purchase that “will stimulate the automotive industry”. The RDRF does not see that as a reason for supporting EVs – other means can and should be sought to provide employment for motor industry workers.
What EVs do NOT address.
There are a number of problems associated with mass motorisation which EV proponents do not mention. To be fair, these proponents do not claim that EVs will do so, but we need to consider them for two reasons.
Firstly, there is a very real danger that in the rush to embrace a supposedly “clean” (or “cleaner”) “solution” to a problem of mass motor vehicle use these other problems will (continue to be) overlooked or dealt with inadequately. Secondly, there is an even more obvious danger that at least one of the problems – congestion – may be exacerbated by EV uptake to an extent which will minimise a key EV potential advantage, namely GG emission reduction. Since the principal alleged benefit of EVs is GG emission reduction, the most important section will be on this.
1. Road Danger.
Road danger from the (mis)use of motor vehicles is obviously something our organisation is interested in. As our followers know, it is not the same as aggregated “Road Traffic Collision” statistics, and is not being tackled appropriately by Government – not least by the absence of proper quality metrics. It is, above all, a moral issue about the supposed “right” of some road users to endanger, hurt or kill others.
I won’t spend time and space here detailing what road danger means. Suffice it to say that the massive advocacy of EVs seems to be part of a wider assumption that there is a fundamental “right” to drive, which is a key obstacle to reducing danger at source. In addition, we should note that fear of road danger is a key obstacle in achieving the higher levels of walking and cycling required for a genuinely sustainable transport policy.
2. Noxious emissions.
This is a key explanatory image for the EV question – the source of electricity production is critical in assessing the impacts of EVs, particularly with the GG emissions question.
Having said that, even when dirty sources (particularly coal) are used for electricity production for EVs, the noxious emissions from power stations will not have the same adverse effects as they would have from tail pipes, because the power stations are sited further away from people. So the noxious emissions, particularly smog producing NOx, will indeed be less.
That still leaves the fact that EVs release particle pollution into the air from the wearing of tyres, brakes and road surfaces. Already more particle pollution comes from wear than from the exhausts of modern vehicles.
The trend towards open disc brakes rather than sealed drums could be making the situation worse. For the effects of these very small particles see this article . With regenerative braking (where the electric motor puts the EV into reverse) this is supposed to not be so bad – but the extra weight of the batteries could (according to one study ) mean more particle pollution compared with the petrol or diesel vehicles that we buy today. Of course, this may all be alleviated by changes in EV technology in the future.
3. Consumption of space – congestion.
Cars and vans consume enormous amounts of space. This can be for parking, taking away space which could be used for housing, green space, or for other modes of transport when on the road. Or it can be in traffic restricting the efficiency of the journeys of other road users. These problems will remain with EVs, and in fact they could be become greater with the prospect of cheap EVs from China.
But it gets worse. We have to consider the effects of EVs in the general traffic mix, with ICE vehicles still being produced until 2035 (according to the latest Government pronouncements). This means that ICE vehicles will still be around as a major part of the motor traffic mix for another twenty years or so. It is generally assumed that congestion exacerbates the emissions problems of motor traffic (whether GG or noxious) – so for the next decade, or even two decades, the introduction of EVs could contribute to additional emissions as the remaining non-EVs carry on with their emissions.
A key report (if not the key report) is by Professors Phil Goodwin and Jillian Annable (Chapter 4 here ) , whose conclusion is quoted sympathetically in the August 2019 Parliamentary Select Committee’s report on “Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the U.K.’s emissions reduction targets,”
It is worth quoting in full:
“This chapter reinforces the growing consensus that the ambition in relation to fuel switching and vehicle efficiency could and should be strengthened. We nevertheless question the almost exclusive reliance upon technical improvements for two main reasons.
• The Department for Transport’s (DfT) own scenario forecasts show that the uptake of ULEVs is likely to put upward pressure on traffic growth by lowering the costs of motoring. ‘Clean’ growth involves more than attending to the carbon implications; it means considering the combined effects of continued car dependency leading to more urban sprawl, inactive lifestyles and congestion together with the lifecycle impacts of vehicles and batteries, charging infrastructure, and road and car parking capacity.
• The almost exclusive reliance on technical solutions will only be able to produce the necessary reductions if the DfT’s lower traffic growth futures are assumed. Evidence suggests a lower rate of demand for passenger mobility is credible, but this would require a different policy package to achieve and ‘lock in’ the new demand patterns. Thus, whether we assume underlying high growth trends whereby technological developments cannot hope to mitigate the externalities from traffic demand, or we assume that lower or even negative rates of growth could instead be enabled, a different suite of policies focused on shaping the demand for travel is required.”
4. Physical health of EV users.
The latest major call for a move to active travel – cycling and walking – from sedentary motor vehicle use comes from the BMA in October 2019, who want an annual £1.2 billion budget for active travel in the UK. We have seen numerous reports on the health risks of inactive travel since Adrian Davis’ report for the BMA “Road Transport and Health” in 1997. Life years lost in the current road transport system are associated primarily with climate change (mostly in the future); inactivity; then noxious emissions and deaths/injuries from road crashes; and investment put into road building and other support for mass motor vehicle use which could go into health care.
Here is just one of many illustrations of the health benefits of shifting from car use to cycling:
5. Local environmental damage and road building.
The amount of space taken by mass motor vehicle usage is evident in the continuing costly programmes to accommodate (and also generate) motor traffic, with inevitable adverse effects on local community and the local environment. Despite warnings for the last half century, the continuing centrality of car dependence leads to urban sprawl and forms of low density development that have adverse environmental effects. For example, it is generally assumed that low density building is more inefficient in terms of provision of energy, and it makes public transport and walking and to some extent cycling) less attractive as transport options.
Also, the processes of building roads and associated infrastructure like car parks are themselves GG emitting processes.
6. Financial cost to society.
Mass motorisation imposes what conventional economists call “external costs” to society. Monetising these adverse effects (damage to public health, the environment, casualties from collisions etc.) is a dubious activity, although decisions on transport projects are often supposedly based on cost benefit analyses that do this. It is, however, worth looking at the costs to society, not least as a part of the dangerous “Road Tax” myth which facilitates motorist entitlement on the basis that drivers have somehow paid for the “right” to drive.
Here I just want to point out that the money paid by drivers has been repeatedly cut by Government since the Conservative/Liberal Democrat regime of 2010, with an amount lost to the Exchequer of some £100 billion. With EVs replacing ICE vehicles that amount would rise again: the mainstream Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned of an extra annual £28 billion loss of revenue:
“Cuts to fuel duties over the last two decades have contributed towards revenues’ being £19bn a year lower than they would have been. Another 2p cut, as reportedly mooted by the prime minister, would cost a further £1bn a year. The bigger challenge is that revenues are now set to disappear entirely over coming decades as we transition to electric cars. The government should set out its long-term plan for taxing driving, before it finds itself with virtually no revenues from driving and no way to correct for the costs – most importantly congestion – that driving imposes on others.”
All of this is without the costs to the Exchequer of road building planned and maintenance that happens without a significant reduction in motor traffic; existing EV subsidy or schemes such as interest free loans for EV buyers suggested by the current Opposition. These costs are also evident in:
7. Provision of a charging network.
Such a network’s installation involves massive cost. It also involves an addition to the demands for scarce street space in urban areas, competing with the needs of other road users. There are other problems with trip hazards highlighted by visually impaired road users.
8. Use of scarce resources
August 2019 Parliamentary Select Committee’s report on “Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the U.K.’s emissions reduction targets” refers to the United States Geological Survey which warns of a likely future shortage of the minerals required for electric vehicle batteries. Globally, the supplies of lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel that could be economically extracted equate to just 30 years of car production at the current rate, but this supply could be adversely impacted by strife in the regions where the minerals are mined. This also applies to other kinds of battery use, including those for e-bikes. Historically fears of resources running out have often proved unjustified, although concerns may be relevant here.
9. Miscellaneous car culture problems.
These are just some of the problems of a car-centred society – here are more:
(a) Personal alienation.
Separation from other human beings and the everyday social interaction that has characterised human societies for millennia is a key feature of car culture. Earlier this year the then Transport Minister Jesse Norman said of EVs:
“Just swapping thirty million petrol and diesel vehicles for thirty million electric ones would do nothing to solve our problems of congestion, obesity, or growing social individualism (my emphasis). In fact, it might well be a policy failure of epic proportions”.
(b) Children’s independent mobility.
The now classic 1990 study by Adams, Hillman and Whitelegg showed how fear of motor traffic has restricted children’s independent mobility with attendant adverse physical and psychological health effects
For the wider ramifications of the continued push for ever increasing personal mobility, see the work of John Adams on hypermobility and John Whitelegg
10. Greenhouse Gas (GG) emissions.
This is, after all, the central justification for the roll out of EVs. I have shown above that introducing EVs into a traffic scenario with no big reduction in overall motor vehicle use will not result in sufficient reduction in GG emissions to meet Government targets (quite apart from the other adverse effects of continuing high levels of mass motorisation). Indeed this is the conclusion of the Labour and Conservative (and one Liberal Democrat and one SNP) MPs in the August 2019 Parliamentary Select Committee’s report on “Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the U.K.’s emissions reduction targets,”
as well as the academics’ CREDS report .
Let’s look in more detail at what the introduction of EVs means for GG emissions.
A crucial issue is what the energy source is: at present the UK grid has about half its electricity supplied by non-FF sources. We also have to consider the production, transport and disposal emissions involved in the life-cycle (“cradle to grave”) of EVs. So consider this illustration:
(click to enlarge all images)
The CO2 emissions from production and disposal (in blue) mean that even with the energy source being completely from renewables (middle column), CO2 emissions from EVs through their life cycle will be about 30% of a petrol driven car (and about 36% of a diesel car). But we’re a long way from totally renewable energy sourcing: in 2017, at the EU average the EV CO2 emissions were about 75% and 80% that of petrol and diesel cars. At the moment in the UK we are at about a 25% cut in CO2 emissions for an EV compared to petrol driven car. That is not very dramatic in the context that I have described above. So much for “zero emission” cars.
But what about a future where the UK grid becomes more based on non FF sources? Firstly, there is the question of priorities: if we are going to move to cleaner energy, where do we think it is most important that it should be used? Energy is used primarily for domestic (heating, lighting, cooking etc.) use; then there are industrial, commercial uses, street lighting, powering railways etc. Are these uses not more important than personal motor vehicular transport? So here’s a thought: if we are to have EVs, shouldn’t their owners pay the full costs of the additional “clean” energy that they would have to use in order to fulfil their potential? (When I say “costs” I mean the costs of installing and operating the solar/wind/wave or whatever green energy source is used – also, why not internalise the external costs, such as disruption to local communities of building the power stations?).
Then there’s the issue of exactly how much reduction in GG emissions we should be aiming for. Even if we go for an officially agreed target such as the Paris accords, and press for international agreements to be supported globally, such targets are inevitably compromises. Furthermore, there will be plenty of debate (see for example this discussion) as to whether we are actually progressing towards these targets, as the Government claims that we are. And all this is without questioning claims such as the supposed “zero-emissions” of nuclear power (as done e.g. by Jacobson ).
So, in summary, GG emission reduction from EVs is minimal and cut further by not reducing the amount of motor traffic including ICE vehicles or making changes (such as higher density housing) to be part of that reduction.
(One more point: any meaningful discussion about climate change has to look at us as members of the world population. If we assume that adults in the UK should have the easily available use of motor vehicles, there is no reason why people in other countries should not. In the UK we have about one car for every two people. Very roughly calculated, there are about 1.2 billion cars in a world populated by 7.6 billion people, or one for every six people. Bringing the world’s population “up” to UK levels would mean an extra 2.5 billion cars on the planet (with associated roads and infrastructure). That is impossible with any realistic attempt to cut GG emissions.)
Red herrings and the driver sense of entitlement.
Let’s look at the context into which EVs are being introduced: it is one of a culture where the unwarranted domination by the car is taken for granted by all too many. Indeed, the word “culture” in its sociological or anthropological sense directs us to precisely the unstated assumptions of a society. Our job is to highlight and criticise those background assumptions.
Consider the response to the UK Government’s consultation on introducing EVs (including green number plates for EVs) in October 2019 from the RAC:
“While the sentiment seems right, there are question marks as to whether drivers would see this as a badge of honour or alternatively it could foster resentment among existing drivers of petrol and diesel vehicles. Incentives may make a difference in the short term and the possibility of free parking and the permission to use bus lanes at certain times could encourage some to switch, however many drivers remain cool on the idea even with this encouragement.”
“We continue to believe that the best way of encouraging drivers to ‘go electric’ is for the Government to be providing the right financial incentives at the point of purchase, and investing in better charging infrastructure.”
In other words, we are supposed to worry that drivers may “feel resentment” by seeing green number plates on some vehicles, reminding them that their vehicle pollutes even more. We should also expect drivers to want even more money being given to them (“right financial incentives”), as well as even more perks such as use of bus lanes and extra subsidy for parking, and for them to feel even more unhappy (“cool”) if they don’t get them! Such is driver entitlement – an entitlement which in our view is utterly unjustified.
Or see the comments from the Minister:
Local Transport Today (LTT 784 25/10/2019)
Note that he thinks there is ‘Absolutely no disadvantage at all’, despite everything I have pointed out above, and key elements of which (such as the August 2019 Parliamentary Select Committee’s report on “Clean Growth”) he would be sure to know about. Also, the traditional car supremacist assumption that “everybody” drives: about a quarter of the UK adult population does not have a full driving licence, with plenty of licence holders not having access to a car and yet more not driving as their form of transport on any given day. Yet we are supposed to think that “most people” will be driving EVs in a “very short period of time”.
Now, when he spoke to the same Select Committee on 16th October 2019 (referred to here ) he said he was very keen to support cycling – but cycling remains at a tiny modal share with no obviously appropriate level of investment to genuinely support cycling as an everyday form of transport, while the foreground is full of support of EVs, as well as the actual or proposed investment behind them.
And that’s the whole point. What is actually happening is that sustainability and active travel get the fine words – and have done by Ministers to no adequate effect for some 35 years (in 1984 I was at a conference where the then Minister, Lynda Chalker, promised to “encourage” cycling) with minimal genuine support – while motoring gets the actual support.
The red herring effect is already visible. EV drivers have the prospect of extra free parking and use of bus lanes, as well as consideration of a higher speed limit on motorways. But this effect goes much deeper than that. Throughout my career I have been informed by drivers that they are “good drivers” because they don’t drink and drive, or that they are sensitive to the environment because their car is “small”. Any actual or alleged alleviation of a problem created by driving is seen as some sort benevolent progress which should allow further pampering of the motorist, or at the least a refusal to criticise the transport status quo. At present that looks very much like happening with EVs.
Or consider the transport activist Joe Dunckley’s tweet:
“The general/media narrative lately seems to have taken to treating private transport emissions as if that problem can be ignored now, because [waves hands] “electric cars are coming”, without ever checking that the problem is not in fact getting worse.”
The context for his tweet is the news about the massive contribution to emissions of various kinds from SUVs – we have had more fuel efficient ICE cars for a while, but without the necessary restrictions on car ownership and use (particularly cost) we end up with mass SUV use. Such is the effect of red herring trailing. Then there is the Director of the so-called “Green Alliance” calling for the Minister to “make EVs available to everyone.”
EVs in this context are thus set to become very much part of the problems of mass motorisation.
Trailing a red herring: The term was popularized in 1807 by English essayist William Cobbett, who told a story of having used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a hare.
So should we oppose the introduction of EVs?
EVs could be part of a sustainable and healthy future transport scenario, but only if a number of conditions are met. If there is:
• The introduction of a well-integrated and appropriately financed transport strategy. This would be based on the significant reduction in car, van, taxi and motorcycle mileage and a reduction in their modal share, with a big increase in walking, cycling, and public transport modes.
• The financial costs of new green energy supply required to fuel EVs being fully met by the driver and/or owner, with additional internalisation of external costs (such as effects on the local environment of installing new power stations) meaning that drivers pay an additional nominal sum as well. If ICE vehicles were then to become obviously cheaper and more attractive, their price (and other restrictions on their use would have to be increased).
• Space re-allocation from motor vehicles to walking, cycling and public transport (through low car access housing and retail developments, introduction of protected cycle lanes, reduction in car parking at current origins and destinations, widespread filtered permeability, bus lanes etc.)
• High level traffic law enforcement targeting those most likely to endanger others on the road, backed up by well publicised deterrent sentencing.
• Proper financing for local public transport, as well as for cycling and walking.
– then the remaining cars (often through shared car schemes), vans and taxis could be EVs – but there would be far fewer of them and doing much lower mileage than at present. Earlier this year Transport for Quality of Life suggested that for net zero emissions by 2045, the level of traffic reduction needed by 2030 should be anywhere between 20% and 60%, depending on factors including the speed of the switch to electric vehicles and how fast the electricity powering them is decarbonised.
That is a very big “if”. There are those such as Cllr. Jon Burke of LB Hackney who plan a roll out of on-street charging – but also plan a 25% reduction in car ownership in the Borough and oppose additional subsidy to EVs. That kind of thinking could work, but is regrettably the exception which proves the rule. There are also issues such as how to price ICE vehicles at the same time – increasing their costs as well.
But those issues need to be confronted and are not even apparently part of Governmental thinking. As John Dales puts it : “No one with real authority and power seems to be driving the comprehensive change in transport and travel that the environmental, public health, population growth and economic challenges we face demand.”
Photo: Getty Images: Sean Gladwell
Are you thinking of buying an EV? Our society would be far better off if you drove your current car much less (and more carefully) than you do now. Much more importantly, you need to campaign for a society with real (financial and other) disincentives to drive and incentives to use the sustainable and healthy alternatives. If you already drive the least possible amount and shift to an EV, remember that benefits in terms of greenhouse gas and noxious emissions are small.
With the current transport status quo, even significant changes to EVs will have small beneficial results for the reasons explained above, as well as not confronting most of the main problems associated with mass car use.
Unless that status quo changes – and the indicators are not good – then EVs will be part of the problem, although with the changes I have indicated necessary in place, they could be a (small) part of the solution. And if buying an EV now gives you that nice warm feeling from doing something you think is good, then the red herring will have been very effectively trailed.
Dr Robert Davis, Chair RDRF , 28/10/2019