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Doing the right thing for the wrong reason

Every now and then a government will do the right thing for an entirely wrong reason.  A case in point is the UK government’s decision to cut the grants on electric car sales.  Environmental groups jumped on the cuts (quite correctly) as further evidence that the UK government is increasingly a threat to the human habitat (the move comes in the same week as fracking got a final go ahead).

It is instructive, however, that the loudest howls of protest have come from motoring groups which appear to have experienced a Damascene conversion to environmentalism now that money is involved.  This is because electric vehicle (EV) ownership is a great deal for anyone wealthy enough to spare £30,000 or so.  In addition to the grant and tax break, owners get their fuel subsidised by the other 80 percent of the population through standing charges on electricity bills (and don’t imagine for one moment that by the time you can afford an EV those subsidies will still be there).

The dubious environmental value of EVs is entirely psychological.  Their presence reassures the masses that the dream of happy motoring can continue forever; even as the fossil fuels the dream was based upon go away.  The true environmental value, however, of adding to our demand for electricity in the face of wholly inadequate renewable energy technologies is entirely negative.  If there is a means of escaping environmental destruction and resource depletion, it is rapidly cutting our energy use across the board.  Even the conservative IPCC were forced to admit as much earlier this week.  More radical – I would say realistic – environmental scientists like Kevin Anderson from Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre argue that only the most radical cuts to energy use can save the day:

“To genuinely reduce emissions in line with 2°C of warming requires a transformation in the productive capacity of society, reminiscent of the Marshall Plan. The labour and resources used to furnish the high-carbon lifestyles of the top 20% will need to shift rapidly to deliver a fully decarbonised energy system. No more second or very large homes, SUVs, business and first-class flights, or very high levels of consumption. Instead, our economy should be building new zero-energy houses, retrofitting existing homes, huge expansion of public transport, and a 4-fold increase in (zero-carbon) electrification.”

If you live in the UK or the United States and you are not living on the streets, then you are a member of the top twenty percent club that Anderson is talking about.  The politics of the situation, however, is that there is huge inequality within that twenty percent; with those at the very top having plundered the wealth of those at the bottom for the last 40 years.  EVs are merely the latest attempt at the same plundering… grants and tax breaks for the wealthy paid for with higher energy bills for the poor.  This is not simply because of the grants available to the few people who can afford to purchase a brand new EV (there are no grants for used ones).  It is also because a switch to EVs would mean the government giving up the £27 billion that it collects in fuel duty and VAT on fuel from the current vehicle fleet.  That means either even more cuts to public services, infrastructure and benefits or an increased tax burden on everyone else.  Even this, however, is trifling compared to the upgrade to the National Grid that will be required to replace even a fraction of the current vehicle fleet and provide it with sufficient charging points to make it viable… something that Britain’s growing army of impoverished minimum wage and gig workers will be obliged to pay for via their already eye-watering energy bills.

Even if these problems – and the likely political fallout – could be overcome, there is an even bigger barrier to the adoption of EVs – declining mineral supplies.  Doubts are growing about the amount of recoverable lithium and – especially – cobalt available for battery production.  Meanwhile, the rare earth metals essential to EV motors are simultaneously intended to allow the construction of wind and hydroelectric turbines.  In truth, we probably can’t have either (in the desired quantities) and we certainly can’t have both.

Lastly, and ironically, EVs are essentially an oil-based technology.  This is not simply because so many of the components of an EV are made from and/or transported with oil; but because every mineral required in their production was mined with diesel-powered machinery, transported on gargantuan diesel-powered trucks and processed in fossil-fuel-powered plants.  The only reason that this can be done economically is because of the profits that the oil industry makes on two of the waste products of refining – petrol (gasoline) and asphalt… which is a key reason why governments built road transport systems in the first place.  Shift people from petroleum to electric cars in large enough numbers and you don’t just kill the oil companies; you kill the extractive and manufacturing industries too.  And then you are left with no means of producing EVs or the renewable electricity technologies that were supposed to power them.

Having said all of this, there will no doubt be EVs in our future.  Many of them will be trains.  A lot will be trams and buses.  A few will be relatively small and short-range delivery trucks.  But in the localised and far less consumption-driven economy that is coming, mass motoring is not going to be happening.   Walking and cycling will be the main forms of transport for the majority of us.  And with this in mind, not wasting the energy and resources that remain to us on EVs is actually a good thing… even if the government’s motives are sordid.

As you made it to the end…

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