“If we break through to the other side, if the voting public can see that the long term benefits massively outweigh the short term pain, then a tipping point may be passed and with it a wave of support resulting in a more robust mandate for change.”
Changing the Paradigm
The manufacture and use of automobiles contributes a staggering 20-25% of global CO2 emissions. Such a sizable percentage would suggest a marked shift in the automobile industry away from current trends is imperative to any global or national strategy to cut emissions. What’s more it is highly likely that by seriously effecting changes in these powerful industries many other CO2 producing industries will fall into line too, encouraged by the positive economies and improvements evolving from carbon neutral transport systems. Positive change begets positive change and that is key to getting the ball rolling in this area.
The production of electric cars is all very well but it’s of no use if those cars are charged every night by electricity derived from fossil fuels. We need now more than ever to introduce the initial economic conditions and catalysts that will lead to a serious and irreversible paradigm shift. Whilst this revolution won’t happen over night, it will, if implemented vigorously and courageously, gather speed as the years unfold, creating as it goes new avenues and new opportunities for development, slowly bringing the public on board as it reaps the benefits. Although there will be pain on the way, the benefits will be reaped in this generation’s lifetime. In the words of the author James Martin abandonment of fossil fuels won’t mean going back to nature but will predicate the rise of ‘eco affluence’, a society that is richer and better off than their predecessors, surrounded by incredible technologies but in a society that is carbon neutral.
Planning for the Future
There seems to be two main avenues for addressing the current predicament – through financial incentives and sanctions (taxing heavy road users, regular flyers, subsidising carbon neutral industries, penalising carbon heavy ones, etc), and through the building of less automobile-centric cities and transport infrastructures. Addressing automobile and aviation greenhouse gas emissions needs short, medium and long term plans, all of which must be developed in detail:
- Short term plans would focus on getting car usage down by using the tax system to penalise heavy road users whilst heavily incentivising and investing in public transport / cycle routes / walking. These kinds of changes can be implemented almost immediately. All that is needed is political will. They will be unpopular at first and to some may seem unfair but community support will follow given time for the medium and long term plans to play out.
- Medium term planning takes place over a decade or two and involve massive long term investment in alternative carbon neutral solutions and the accompanying infrastructures, culminating in more electric cars coming off the production line at affordable prices (amongst other things). There is still much R&D to be done in this field and technical problems to conquer (such as the problem with making effective batteries and tailoring the national grid to deal with the spikes in energy usage from owners charging them). This can partly be done through the tax system but also needs bold and radical adaptation of our cities and transport infrastructures. Industry support is crucial at this stage and the paradigm shift must really be under way for this to take place effectively.
- Long term plans should involve the redesigning and re engineering of entire cities and transport systems, based on an evolving blueprint for a carbon neutral country. This calls for the nurturing of bold and brilliant visionaries. By this point we should be seeing a complete cultural shift away from petrol cars towards a new generation of desirable electric vehicles at every end of the price spectrum. More rail, less roads, recharge points for electric cars and a national grid geared up to produce electricity for a generation of electric vehicles without burning CO2 will accompany this trend.
A Holistic Approach
At present the UK’s residual fuel mix is made up from 35.7% coal; 48.9% natural gas; 5.2% nuclear; 6.5% renewables and 3.7% other fuels. Of this coal is by far the biggest polluter producing 910 g/kWh, with natural gas at 400g/kWh and others in at 600 k/Wh. Nucelar and renewables of course produce zero. Whether we like it or not the former of these has to be featured in any short to medium term plan to drastically reduce carbon emissions. It is important to stress that it won’t necessarily be a permanent solution, as the development of infinitely abundant and clean energy sources such as nuclear fusion may well come to supersede everything else. But this is, for now, a specific arguement and we need to look at the bigger picture, we need a holistic approach.
As already mentioned the heart of the problem is in changing the dominant paradigm by making tough decisions. In the automobile industry many skilled jobs may become redundant but in the case of the automobile industry combustion engines will be replaced by new types of technology and therefore new skillsets will be required. There needs to therefore be a heavy investment in retraining and new training to keep the electorate onside. The dominance of accepted orthodoxies, a misinformed public and myopic politics are the greatest challenges we face in implementing change, but I refer again to James Martin’s premise of ‘eco affluence’; we needn’t be poorer off for this transition, indeed quite the opposite. The problem is in the hardships necessitated by any fundamental upheaval in an economy and the underlying society it supports.
Deconstructing Economic Orthodoxies and Dismantling Fossil Fuel Hegemonies
The state of the global economy and national deficit imply a barrier to change but they actually offer an opportunity. Fiscal conservatism isn’t the answer, although markets should and do play a role. If Britain can strike out alone in heavily investing in science and R&D, taxing carbon production heavily in industry to avoid unnecessary burdens placed on the taxpayer then it is likely we will be emulated. Competition is a driver of international markets. If the perception is that we are etching out a place as market leaders is what will become a trillion dollar industry, this will stimulate competition abroad. Long termism must trump short term obsessions about the defecit and the markets. We need to separate the economic problems from the imperative of long term investment. We must gear our economies not around deficit reduction but a restructuring and reorganisation of principles. A green industry needs to be at the heart of our economic planning. We need to break free of the bloated financial sector that has made us vulnerable and is the cause of so much public dissent.
Heavy investment in the electric car industry and all the necessary infrastructure to roll it out on a large scale will undoubtedly face stiff opposition from the motoring industry as well as the oil industry. These corporate hegemonies hold incredible political as well as financial power but they don’t directly control government policy (yet). But at their hearts all corporations are guided by the singular principle of making money for their shareholders and not some archaic religiosity towards an oil based transport industry. If they think there is money to be made in an electric car industry they will increase investment and production. If we break through to the other side, if the voting public can see that the long term benefits massively outweigh the short term pain, then the tipping point may be passed and with it a wave of support resulting in a more robust mandate for change. As benefits begin to emerge so this support will swell. New tech will result, creating new industries and exciting new opportunities for wealth creation producing economic feedbacks and ushering in the new paradigm.
Emerging Technologies and the Dangers of Biofuel Dependency
Already there are emerging technologies which seek to bridge the gap between the actual deployment of electric cars and the long term problem of adapting electricity grids to deal with the massive spikes in electricity use when people get home around 6pm to charge their cars. The technology giant Intel is already working with SAP and ESB on producing a smart tablet that will link into your calendar and charge your car according to your suspected journey time the next day. What’s more is that it will link to the grid and know when is the best time to charge your battery. The technology is out there and with huge developments in the efficiency of batteries we can expect to have the tools not only to replace the combustion engines with its electric equivalent but to actually produce a vehicle of comparable performance that is cheaper to run and less prone to breakdown.
There is a danger that we can neglect the electric car and go down the path of adopting biofuels like ethanol. Whilst cutting carbon dioxide emissions putting all our eggs in the ethanol / methanol biofuel basket has huge long term risks. Huge swathes of land are cut down to grow the corn, causing more deforestation and negatively impacting on food stocks in a time of globally burgeoning populations and worldwide economic stagnation. Whilst the development of genetically engineered crops will help to ease this fuel / food crop competition for space, the rising frequency and scale of droughts may well counter it out. Electric cars require additional electricity from the grid but we at least have the option of where we source this electricity. With biofuels we do not. The risks are too great. We must look at holistic approaches and not short term fixes.
The Electric Car Revolution
Short term compromises will be needed to bridge the difficult transition to clean energies which will come. If we can reduce CO2 by adopting a new generation of nuclear thorium reactors combined with more wind / solar / hydro power generation then we can seriously look at cutting fossil fuels out of the picture entirely, paving the way for a truly smart grid powered exclusively by abundant and carbon neutral energy sources. The electric car is only one part of this grand picture but its large scale deployment will be a powerful driver not only of economic models of change but of cultural / societal shifts in attitude. The paradigm shift needs its symbolism, its iconography of change. The electric car may just be it.