What is the role of the car in the transition to sustainable transport?

By Finn Pierau

The third in a series of articles titled 'the voice of young people',  from the opinion formers of the future.  

On November 19th, 2020 PM Boris Johnson announced the UK’s ambition to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans, excluding hybrids, from 2030 onwards. This comes as part of the government’s plan for a “green industrial revolution”, which for now is backed by £4 billion in funding, £1.3 bn of which is to be used for investing in the Electric Vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. 

In terms of CO2 emissions, the move to the full electrification of new vehicles seems to make a whole lot of sense. Even though the production of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) consumes more CO2 than traditional Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles (ICEVs), a 2018 life cycle analysis found that this is offset after driving a little less than 45,000 km (28,000 miles) on the 2018 average European grid mix. Car brands like Tesla and Nissan offer a 100,000-mile guarantee on their vehicles’ batteries, and the electricity mix will only become greener in the future, such that the emissions advantage of BEVs will grow further. 

Unfortunately, electric cars are not the single solution to sustainable transport; we have to change our travel habits and buying preferences as well. First, although emissions can be drastically reduced by replacing ICEVs with BEVs, the 2018 study also found that toxicity and ozone levels, acidification, particulate matter and resource depletion are all increased compared to ICEVs, mainly due to “extraction of precious metals as well as the production of chemicals for battery production”. Of course, sustainable interiors, such as vegan leather, are necessary steps, but the battery packs of BEVs are the major challenge to make electric car production sustainable.

Secondly, there is the issue of infrastructure. It is great to see that the government acknowledges the challenges to make transport more sustainable in a recent publication called “Decarbonising Transport”, but from my point of view, naming this challenge a “decarbonisation” is a simplistic take on the issues at hand. Carbon emissions are only one obstacle to sustainable transportation. There is a danger of greenwashing the conscience of the consumer in believing that BEVs could be a silver bullet for sustainable transport.

Take for example the space inefficiency of cars. For the past two decades, average car occupancy per trip in the UK was 1.6 people per car . This is especially troublesome when realising that almost a third of UK cars are SUVs. Shockingly, a landmark study on the world’s energy consumption found that SUVs are the second largest factor in increasing global energy consumption, ahead of both heavy industry and aviation. This makes manufacturer’s plans for using aluminium to reduce vehicle weight a lot less impactful when considering that the average SUV consumes at least 25% more fuel and resources. 

As such, sustainable transportation is not simply solved by electrification. I do believe that for the foreseeable future, the car is a logical solution for everyday trips in rural areas. Whereas in the city, public transport offers a credible alternative to get around, often quicker than a car, this freedom is difficult to maintain in the countryside. Currently, buses or trains may come too infrequently to allow for comfortable flexibility. Here then the electric car is a more than welcome contribution to sustainable transportation. Since over 40% of current available charging points are condensed within Greater London and the South East, the government has to ensure that the announced funding boosts thus-far neglected areas in the North. Still, the price point of well above 20,000 pounds for entry-level BEVs means that they are not easily accessible and thus cannot fully replace public transport. 

Yet for urban areas, we should not forget that the car is often a thing of comfort, not necessity, and cars take up a whole lot of space. In London, the average person takes 250 car trips per year of less than 1 mile. In 2007, this number stood at 230 trips . PWC as well as the government predict that car mileage in the UK will increase significantly. I am wondering whether this has to be the case. In an interesting blog post on “the 15-minute city”, Dan Luscher contrasts two competing concepts that guide infrastructure planning: mobility and accessibility. He quotes Daniel Herriges: “Mobility is how far you can go in a given amount of time. Accessibility is how much you can get to in that time”.

The premise of the 15-minute city aims to enable every person to access what they need within 15 minutes, not only car drivers. This might be closer to reality than it seems. TFL estimates that cycling and walking alone can replace more than two-thirds of all car trips in London. This does require a change of habit for many of us. Yet, can we really expect to solve a self-induced climate crisis by sticking to old habits?

Published: 4 December 20

Back to news list