Why Do Some Environmentalists Oppose Decarbonisation of Vehicles?

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 26th February 2021 by Dr Steve Melia.

Options for removing carbon from the atmosphere are limited so, for most sectors of the economy, net zero means absolute zero. For surface transport, absolute zero means that all remaining vehicles must be zero-carbon in their use, their manufacture and their disposal. Those are not my opinions; they are statements of fact, but in stating them, (in evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, for example), I have been surprised to encounter some hostility from other environmental activists online. On other occasions, talking to a Green Party candidate, for example, there was no hostility, just a deep scepticism about technological solutions in general.

For some of those critics, any mention of “vehicles” and “manufacturing” invokes a dystopian vision of techo-fixes engineered by big business. When asked: ‘so what’s your solution?’ they typically advocate re-localising human societies, reducing unnecessary movement and use of private cars. Few people in transport planning would disagree with those principles, although my research, and many others, would caution against over-optimism. Positive changes, like better public transport, make little difference to traffic volumes, unfortunately (and public transport also uses vehicles). And I have still heard no convincing answer to the question I posed in Transport Times last October: what is plan b if public transport does not recover from the pandemic?

Patterns of car dependency and hypermobility are ingrained in much of our built environment. That could be changed over time, but attempting to do it quickly would require large-scale carbon-hungry demolitions and rebuilding. In any case, travel reduction is not enough. To avert climate breakdown we need to reach zero emissions before the legal deadline of 2050.

Some of these online debates generated more heat than light, so I withdrew from them, but one more constructive discussion did help to clarify what people on either side really want. One participant who disagreed with my initial post wrote of a radical transformation of life after fossil fuels, removing “99% of manufacturing, excluding simple items that we have had access to for millennia.” That led onto another debate about whether pre-agricultural societies had better or worse qualities of life than we enjoy, or endure, today – the answer is not as straightforward as it might appear.

That position might seem quite extreme, but it is the only logical basis for rejecting the decarbonisation of vehicles. Whether such a transformation is feasible in a densely-populated country, and whether it is desirable or not, there is clearly no prospect of it happening right now. My session with the UK Climate Assembly gave me some insight into the sacrifices most people are willing to make to avoid a future catastrophe – more than politicians imagine, but much less than many environmentalists – or transport planners – would advocate. I stopped flying 16 years ago and stopped driving 11 years ago (until the pandemic, which will hopefully be temporary) but I would not expect the rest of the population, with different circumstances and different needs, to follow my example.

At some future date public opinion might radically change, but we cannot wait for that; we must decarbonise right now. That leaves us with two options: the pure techno-fix favoured by governments or some combination of technological and behaviour change. Manufacturing and disposal of electric vehicles, like all manufacturing, damages the environment in many ways. If we can reduce the number of vehicles at the same time as electrifying the new ones, then we can make inroads into those other problems. But we should beware the campaign by climate change deniers, who are exaggerating the disadvantages of electric vehicles and using them as a weapon to undermine political support for decarbonisation in general.

My session at the parliamentary inquiry came a few days before the Climate Change Committee published their Sixth Carbon Budget. Those reports confirmed one of the points I made to the inquiry: on its own, banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars after 2030 will not reduce transport emissions fast enough to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. We will also need to reduce the volume of traffic.

In the Sixth Carbon Budget the Committee recommends a 9% reduction in car mileage by 2030 and 17% by 2050, compared to a baseline reflecting population increase. This assumes that 97% of new cars will be purely electric by 2030, which is not the policy of the government or the motor industry. Following lobbying by companies such as Toyota (which I witnessed directly) the phase-out of plug-in hybrids has unfortunately been delayed until 2035. As the Committee points out, plug-in hybrids emit almost as much carbon as conventional cars. So, if manufacturers are still selling lots of plug-in hybrids after 2030, then we will need deeper cuts in the volume of traffic. I have written elsewhere about how that might be done, but it is generally easier to achieve when growing populations are moving towards denser urban areas.

The ‘deep ecologists’ do have a valid point about the unsustainability of manufacturing in general. The current model of digging up finite resources, using them to build things, then throwing them away, cannot continue forever. The alternative of a ‘circular economy‘ is gaining ground as an idea, but is a long way from becoming a reality.

So shifting from fossil fuels to battery electric power is at best a medium-term solution; it does not remove the need for re-localisation and demand reduction, but the biggest threat we face right now is failure to decarbonise fast enough. Environmentalists and transport planners both need to focus on that.

Steve Melia’s latest book, Roads Runways and Resistance – from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion, is published by Pluto Press.

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About the Author

This post was written by Dr Steve Melia. Steve is a Senior Lecturer in transport and planning at the University of the West of England.