Driven to disaster: The major flaw in Labour’s Green New Deal plans

Electric cars aren't going to save us.

The Labour Party is going for an electric vehicle revolution, with a pledge to invest £3.6bn to expand the electric charging network and help deliver over 21m electric cars by 2030 (two thirds of the car fleet).

It’s great news – but don’t think that this is job done on reducing pollution. 

Electric vehicles do less damage to the climate than most petrol or diesel cars in the UK, but they still do damage. Some of this damage depends primarily on whether they are powered exclusively from renewable energy, or the usual mix of grid electricity.

For example, recent studies in Germany and Australia have both questioned whether electric vehicles are better than combustion engines in countries where coal remains a significant part of the mix when producing grid electricity.

This makes it vital that the government creates a rule that electric charging points must use only renewable energy – anything less, leaves question marks about the value of the switch to electric.

The truth is that comparisons between electric vehicles and conventional vehicles are complex. They depend on the size of the vehicles, the accuracy of the fuel-economy estimates used, how electricity emissions are calculated, what driving patterns are assumed, and even the weather in regions where the vehicles are used. There is no single estimate that applies everywhere.

For example, batteries made in Asia for electric cars, with the dominance of coal fired power stations will be less damaging over the vehicle’s lifetime, than your average car – but still not as good the best rated conventional car.

Fortunately, most batteries are made in countries using electricity with a much lower carbon mix, which means they beat all conventional rivals. My point is that while electric vehicles can help save the planet, don’t assume that is always the case.

There needs to be some realism about how big a step forward this EV revolution will be. Transport is now the UK’s largest sectoral source of carbon emissions, accounting for a full third of our total carbon output. It is the only sector where emissions have not reduced.  Technical fixes are never enough.

Despite all the fuel efficiency and carbon reduction measures of the last 20 years, emissions from transport actually went up last year. To hit zero carbon by 2030, you must reduce the total number of cars, white vans etc…rather than just make them all electric.

A government sponsored calculation published in 2008 had an optimistic ‘extreme’ scenario where we had 5.8m EV cars and 14.8m Hybrid cars by 2030. This is around what Labour were promising and yet it only reduced the total transport sector emissions by 17%.

I think that reducing emissions by a fifth is great, but it’s still way off zero emissions by 2030. I accept that the 2008 study is out of date, but we are way behind their optimistic schedule. The number of conventional vehicles (especially white vans) has gone up and so has their average mileage.

The key thing is the 2008 study assumed that a third of electricity would come from renewables by 2030, and while we are on track to deliver that, we could do so much better. For example, my rule that public and business charging points should use 100% renewable energy would quickly drive up demand.    

The latest projection by the National Grid expects to see 10m EVs on the road by 2030, which makes the Labour Party’s aim of doubling that appear ambitious. But even if we accept current estimates of EVs cutting greenhouse gas emissions by half, then transforming two thirds of the car fleet by 2030 is far from zero emissions, especially when we need to convert all the vans and lorries as well.

Electric vehicles make things better, but they don’t eliminate the problem. To do that you have to challenge the ‘car is king’ culture. They still add to congestion on the roads, take valuable space for parking, and the drivers still run over people and injure or kill thousands. Plus tyre wear from electric vehicles still creates particulate pollution. Traffic jams might smell better, but the disruption to communities continues.

As Leo Murray points out: “Manufacturing a battery powered electric passenger car emits 6-16 tonnes of CO2e. As one and a half metric tonnes of metal, plastic and glass carrying an average human payload of little more than 100kg, privately owned cars are in use for just 4% of the time, spending the other 96% of their time parked. Each car parked on the street turns twelve square metres of the public realm private.

The rapid transformation to electric vehicles gives us the opportunity to rethink how those vehicles are used and to boost the public transport alternatives to private vehicle use.

We need car sharing on a massive scale. We need delivery consolidation centres to end the growing fleets of white vans all travelling miles to drop off at the same addresses.

Above all, we need traffic reduction – i.e. fewer vehicles, rather than £25bn being spent on new roads to accommodate traffic growth. 

And that’s before we get to discussing Heathrow expansion…

Baroness Jenny Jones is a Green Party peer.

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5 Responses to “Driven to disaster: The major flaw in Labour’s Green New Deal plans”

  1. Dave Roberts

    OK Jenny, I give up. What’s the answer?

  2. Craig Mackay

    As always things are a bit more complicated than they might seem!

    One of the reasons that transport continues to use so much energy despite improvement in petrol/diesel engine efficiency is that the cars are growing in size.

    It is essential not only to move to electric cars also to move to smaller cars. Halving the mass of the car halves its consumption without changing anything about driving patterns. Electric vehicles are fundamentally more efficient (think 3-4 times better) than internal combustion engines.

    Next, all vehicles running on internal combustion, and those above a certain weight limit, should be banned from central areas of cities just to reduce the pollution. Pollution is now as big a problem as fossil fuel consumption and we must not focus on fossil fuel exclusively in the short-term.

    We cannot supply 21 million vehicles with electricity without a major investment in renewable power which will take a long time even with unlimited funds, together with all the charging stations that will be needed. In the short-term it is better to have fossil-fuel powered electric generation to supply these vehicles provided the sources are progressively replaced by renewable sources.

    This is a practical strategy that gets us from where we are now to where we undoubtedly want to be (zero fossil fuel used for surface transport).

    The key issue is the weight of the vehicles. Requiring lightweight all-electric vehicles to be the standard if you want to drive into even semi-urban districts will concentrate the mind of the user and force the adoption of lightweight electric vehicles.

    And don’t get me started on public transport (buses and trains) which need just as much work to improve them and reduce their weight as everything else!

  3. Matt

    The true answer to vehicle atmospheric pollution and its resulting climate effects is the introduction of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. However that would not reduce traffic as such, it would just meake it considerably more climate friendly than internal combustion or electric vehicles are. The technology exists, but the political will does not.

  4. Jan Chapman

    Agree that cars are too big. Here in Devon, bigger cars are just not suitable for our many narrow country lanes. When I changed my car, I looked for one that was small enough to fit in my garage and allow me to open the door to get out. Most of my neighbours choose to fill their garages with junk and leave their most valuable asset out in the rain.
    Many bigger cars are too big for current parking spaces. They should pay double if they take up more than one narrow space.

  5. Ian Cox

    Electric vehicles are the future whatever the merits, or not, of the technology. The political decision has been made. The industry investments are almost done and the charging infrastructure is being substantially enhanced. From a market share today of around 2% battery electric cars will reach over 10% in the next two years. It may not be the final answer, but for the time being it is a “done deal”.

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