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Why electric cars are not the answer to London’s carbon crisis

Just as in the 1990s, when the Government told everyone to buy diesel cars to save the planet, now people are being told to buy electric.

But, with diesel cars proving to be more harmful than petrol cars, releasing 13% more CO2 emissions per litre of fuel, is history repeating itself?  

With one-third of the UK’s carbon emissions coming from transport, of which the largest contributor is the private car sector, the Government landed on a solution: electric cars.

In November, it was announced that combustion engine cars would be banned from 2030, with the cited aim to achieve a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

And last year alone, 100,000 zero-emission electric vehicles were registered, totalling 150,000 purely battery-powered and 185,000 plug-in hybrid EVs in the UK.

Electric vehicles are favoured for one significant reason: they do not pollute the air with CO2 emissions, unlike combustion-based engines that exist in cars powered by diesel and petrol.

And unlike hydrogen-fuelled cars, which have an explosive possibility, EV batteries, contrary to popular belief, are less likely to catch on fire than gasoline.

But, whilst EV don’t release any exhaust fumes, they do produce emissions from brake, tyre and road surface wear called Particulate Matter.

These particles, known as PM10 or PM2.5 are connected with extreme health conditions such as asthma, lung cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, and can also affect the lives of unborn children if inhaled by pregnant women.

As well as being bad for human health, tyre wear is also the largest source of microplastics that go on to pollute rivers and seas.

With EV an average of 24% heavier than conventional car counterparts, its non-exhaust emissions are actually already greater than those of petrol or diesel cars.

And, because electric cars are so cheap to run, another concern is more people will drive, resulting in a further increase of congestion and non-exhaust emissions.

In fact, the Department of Transport models that when we have 100% EV ownership, there would be a 51% increase of people driving over taking public transport, without including the 17% traffic increase predicted by 2050.

Moreover, even though the 17 Rare Earth Elements (REE) needed to build EV batteries are no longer rare, with all of them over 200 times more abundant than gold, their mining process still releases toxic compounds that are hazardous to health.

Compounding this, cobalt, a key part of batteries, is largely from the Democratic Republic of Congo, from mines that are known to exploit child labour and violate human rights.

And after a decade or two of use, most batteries are thrown away with only 20% of materials being recycled at fewer than a dozen facilities globally.

Whilst the impact of battery production is offset within two years of driving, based on an EU average, the manufacturing process is still less than green.

Worse still, electricity itself, a clean fuel, is often generated in coal fire power stations, so even before the car has been turned on it has already generated carbon emissions.

One estimate even found that the carbon emissions produced in building each average-sized electric car equates to driving it for 150,000km, with the US Union for Concerned Scientists stating these are emissions are 15% higher than for an equivalent gasoline vehicle due to the need for light, high-performing metals.

Of course, EV are still better than the combustion-fuelled petrol and diesel cars that dominate roads in the long-term, but according to Transport for Quality of Life analysis if the Government goes ahead with plans to spend £27bn building new roads for EV, 80% of carbon savings will be cancelled.

And with their pledging of £1.3bn to accelerate roll-out of charging points and £500m to aid development of mass-scale battery production, it seems they aren’t tackling private car dependency at all but facilitating its modernisation.

And because every 1% shift in car ownership to electric reduces tax revenue by £300m, in an effort to recapture this lost revenue, dynamic road user pricing will likely be introduced.

So, when communities are battling over chargers, people are punished for driving less than 10 miles or driving on main roads at rush hour, EVs are disallowed to drive in Ultra Low Emission Zones for free and non-exhaust emissions are at their highest level ever, it will be very unclear suddenly how EV could ever be viewed as anything but a temporary solution. 

And, if private cars remain as dominant without an outstretch of public transport, then the inactivity crisis and social isolation that compounds society today will only continue.

As Environmental engineer Alexandre Milovanoff wrote in The Conversation, the real promise of EV is that they provide an opportunity to re-think our transportation infrastructure.

He wrote: “Simply put there are three ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from passenger transport: avoid the need to travel, shift the transportation modes or improve the technologies.

“EVs only tackle one side of the problem, the technological one.”

The only way to lower our carbon footprint and reduce health and climate concerns is to reimagine car culture and improve public transport.   

You can read more about electric cars, and how Kensington & Chelsea is the borough leading the race to go electric, here.

Featured image credit: Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon

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Ralph Panhuyzen
Ralph Panhuyzen
29 April 2021 8:35 am

The next step or phase in EV development should be to dramatically reduce car weight including battery pack. Vehicle mass not displaced = kWh not required = more range out of every kWh = less GHG emitted (since 60% of the world’s electricity is still generated by burning fossil fuel sources), and less particulate matter airborne as smaller tired can be fitted.

Last edited 4 months ago by Ralph Panhuyzen

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