Electric Vehicles: Keeping it Real

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Last Tuesday I met with a group of MEPs from The Greens / European Free Alliance (EFA) at the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss the electrification of the transport sector. Following on from my recent guest blog on the Better Place website, I take their interest – and the thrust of the conversation – as another indicator that electric vehicles are moving into the mainstream. The MEPs present – including Claude Turmes and Satu Hassi, both of whom are clearly very knowledgeable on the topic – evidently have concerns that special interest groups are using the bright prospects of electric vehicles to avoid addressing the larger challenges associated with transport sustainability.

Let me restate my position on this: if we clicked our fingers today and electrified the entire automotive fleet of the world – approaching one billion vehicles – we would still be faced with a horribly unsustainable transport sector. We would still have inefficient use of vehicles, too many unnecessary journeys in vehicles that are unnecessarily large, a desperately under-utilised asset base, ugly urban landscapes designed for motorists rather than citizens, chronic under-investment in public transport, growing congestion and associated loss of economic productivity, not to mention a commensurate rise in stress levels. Cars are sold to us on the promise mobility, but in city centres they increasingly deliver immobility.

I could continue, but the larger point should be clear. Electric vehicles are inherently highly energy efficient and compatible with a carbon-free sustainable renewable energy system. But they don’t in themselves solve the broader transport challenges mentioned above. However, by acknowledging the fact that electrification of transport can dramatically improve the energy efficiency and carbon footprint of this uniquely problematic sector – not to mention help tackle urban air and noise pollution – we are not arguing against addressing all of those other important sustainability issues. Similarly, the fact that the nuclear industry vocally advocates the electrification of mobility does not mean that opponents of nuclear power must also oppose the widespread roll-out of electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles – not only cars but also bicycles, vans, and mass-transit modes of mobility – are vital if we are to achieve the objective of the Copenhagen Accord and stay below 2°C of global warming. This will require complete decarbonisation of the energy system by 2050, which means no more fossil fuels burned in mobile applications.

We need to elevate the debate above the creation of false dichotomies, the drawing of ideological boundaries around transport electrification that suggest “pro-EV” equates to “anti-investment in public transport”, to take one example. Unless we manage to maintain an intellectually honest dialogue, we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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