Tuesday 5 January 2021

Electric Vehicles – the answer to all our transport woes – or not?


It’s tempting!  We all seem to love our cars, but wouldn’t it be great if they could run on something that didn’t cook the planet.  Along come EVs and - hey presto – problem solved.


But maybe it’s not that simple. 


There is a tiny proportion of EVs on the road and even if we changed tomorrow all those ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars will still be there for at least the next decade or two – the time in which we will have to reduce their emissions to zero.  If we were going to change to EVs we should have done it 30 years ago.


And maybe they are not as good as made out.  The so-called “Astongate” (the story goes that this emerged from an Aston Martin advert) claimed that EVs emit almost as much CO2 as ICE cars, but this has been well and truly busted.  EVs are inherently better.  As a technology, ICE cars belong in the dark ages – slow, noisy, inefficient, complex, temperamental, polluting.  But there are still huge environmental costs in EV production.  And a change to EVs will do little to help congestion.  Indeed, having cars that are expensive to buy but cheap to use will force up both inequality and congestion (if you’ve spent all that money on a car then you will be keen to use it).


The problem with EVs goes far deeper than “they are not quite as good as we thought they were”.  Furthermore, the problem with EVs extends to other technological fixes to transport, indeed to technological fixes in general.  To understand this, we need to understand "Jevons pardox"– bear with me….

This paradox dates back to 1865.  At the time it was thought that the invention of more efficient steam engines would reduce the demand for coal.  William Stanley Jevons, however, observed that it had the opposite effect.  Better, more efficient technology reduces relative resource costs increasing the quantity demanded more than outweighing any possible reduction of resource use from efficiency savings.  More efficient steam engines effectively drove the industrial revolution – and that did not reduce the demand for coal!  This is not an isolated occurrence with rebound effects often coming from improvements in efficiency causing increase (not decrease) in demand.


EVs fit into this category.  Imagine if we all had gas-guzzling, polluting, expensive (but pretty) monsters.  We’d leave them in the garage (perhaps polish them on Sundays) and find other ways to get access to our needs and services – the congestion problem would be solved.  EVs, however, give us an easy, efficient, cheap (to use) method of transport.  So, their use will shoot up, congestion will shoot up, and emissions will increase from EV production.


Jevons’ paradox will also extend to other transport issues.  If we still insist on traveling everywhere, even without EVs, our countryside could be covered in infrastructure for electric busses, trams, and high-speed railways.  Environmentalists hoping that “modal shift” will solve our problems, will probably also fall foul of this rebound effect.  Making these things far better (by themselves) will probably make life far worse.


As with many of our global problems, faith in technology alone is a dangerous diversion – dangerous because it gives the impression that we are solving a problem when we are not.  For transport problems the solutions are more likely to lie in reducing the need to travel. This will require far more complex, but desirable, changes to society.  How do we keep access to our needs and services local?


Improvements in efficiency alone will be insufficient, indeed counter-productive to the low resource-use society we need to move to.  As environmentalists we often forget this, we focus too much on technology and not enough on the context within which it must sit.  Technological improvements are vital but at best they buy us more time to address the underlying problems – time which, so far, we have simply wasted.  EVs are the same – a step-change improvement on the old technologies that have hung around for far too long.  But they are a diversion, we must address our underlying societal problems that drive ever-increasing demands for travel.


You may be wondering – what do I drive?  And yes, I do drive an EV.  It’s great!  From now on any new car should be an EV.  But I do not kid myself that this is the solution.  Shopping locally, buying local produce, working remotely, using the bike more and walking to local green space rather than driving to distant countryside might help.  But EVs might only help once we have solved our transport problems, they are not the solution in themselves.  Our EV has a range of just over 100 miles – plenty for our needs.  But EVs are not new.  About a century ago there was an EV – the “Baker Electric” – smooth, reliable, comfortable.  It seems that vested interests in oil pushed a superior technology into the background.  The Baker Electric had a range of – just over 100 miles!  Progress?