Cover Art by William Matthews
It would be quite the understatement to call this a bad year. With the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit and of course the damn pandemic, it’s also been a bit of a challenging time for the government. How could they possibly improve their ratings, look less incompetent, turn the national mood around? Well, announcing a plan to bring forward the ban on new petrol and diesel cars is one way to go about it. That’s right the ban on new petrol and diesel cars. If you’ve still got one, presumably you can continue to pollute to your hearts desire. Hmm, petrol… How are we going to turn the economy around? A green economic recovery of course! It all sounds perfect, nothing could possibly go wrong and, of course, Great Britain will lead the way once again and show the world how to do things. Jolly good Blighty!
The decision to bring forward the ban, would put the UK ten years ahead of: France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands, countries which are all planning to ban new fossil fuelled vehicles by 2040.’Hah, that’ll show the Europeans!’ Well, I’m assuming someone from the cabinet must have said that… As a ‘petrol head’, or a lover of cars you could say, you may be surprised to hear that I welcome the move. That’s because I’m young, and like many my age, I am deeply concerned about the state of our planet. Around 75% of Carbon Monoxide pollution globally comes from automotive emissions, along with 10% of the global CO2 output. At the height of the coronavirus lockdown, global emissions of CO2 fell by 17 million tonnes daily, half of which was due to fewer car journeys. Tackling climate change inevitably means a revolution for the automobile, but is the new ban feasible, practical, or just simply political?
The immediate question you may have already thought of is, are we even ready? In short, yes, probably. There are already 155,000 electric vehicles (EVs) in the UK and around 4,500 are being registered each month. Compared to 8,400 petrol stations, there are now 9,300 EV public charging points. With the likes of Tesco and the rather naughty ‘diesel gate’ villains, Volkswagen, teaming up to add an additional 2,400 public chargers, things are looking promising. There are also other alternatives like hydrogen fuel cell cars, that are showing optimistic signs of a diverse green automotive future. Hydrogen? Yeah, you might have thought the Hindenburg would put us off the most abundant element for good, but it’s making a comeback, and could potentially solve the problem of long distance trips. But in the mean time, lithium-ion battery powered EVs seem to be the way. More on lithium later.
A foreseeable problem, is that people commuting home from work will all go to plug in their EVs and drain the national grid at precisely the time when electricity is typically most in demand, between 6 and 8pm. Obviously, as part of the strategy for battling climate change, our national grid needs to be green too, so the work needed to implement the ban is vast. The Committee on Climate Change has advised that the UK will need 214,100 public chargers to efficiently transition to electric cars. Suddenly the 9,300 already installed sounds rather pathetic. Less than 10 years to go! If this government can create a “world beating” track and trace system, installing 204,800 chargers should be a doddle!
A current problem with electric cars is that they cost a bomb. For a modest hatchback style EV, like the Renault Zoe (most popular EV in Europe), a basic model will cost you around £27,000 brand new. To put that into perspective, the bigger, more desirable, sporty hot hatch Renault Megane RS would cost you around £30,000. I know what most people would rather have. But despite the investment needed to research and develop EVs, they still cost too much. This is likely to change and some manufacturers are hoping to make small electric cars for under £10,000. Citroen recently introduced the Ami, a tiny electric two seater car that’s so small it’s classified as a scooter! It doesn’t look like the Ami will be heading here anytime soon, but the point is manufacturers are looking at changing the concept of the car altogether. Exciting times ahead…
Most people buy second hand cars because they’re better value for money. Second hand EVs are seemingly even better value. A brand new Fiat 500e for example can depreciate as much as 75% in less than 3 years, the reason being, that EV technology is improving at such a rapid rate it’s almost inconceivable there won’t be a better version coming along soon. But most importantly, the technology in electric cars is finally at a point where they’ve cracked the distance challenge, with all EVs on the market capable of a range of 150-300 miles, and some able to fully re-charge in half an hour. Let’s hope the infrastructure to support them can be sorted out too!
An argument originally conjured up by an other automotive journalist, something Clarkson I think, is that through the entire lifecycle of petrol and electric cars, petrol cars pollute less because of the sheer amount of energy needed to make an electric car. Whilst this may have been true with the original Toyota Prius, the first mass produced hybrid, according to a recent study in the Nature Sustainability journal, this is completely false and EVs pollute more or less the same as fossil fuelled vehicles to make. Unfortunately, this myth has been around for a while and many including myself, have dismissed the idea of electric cars entirely because of this apparent mythological irony. I hope this article redeems my prior ignorance.
On the topic of irony, an environmental success story of fossil fuelled vehicles is their recyclability. About 80% of a vehicle sent to scrap can be recycled, with no real loss in strength and durability of reprocessed glass and metal. A real problem with the current crop of EVs is that they all have massive Lithium-ion batteries. Lithium has transformed the capacity, charging and lifetime of the battery and is now in most of our smart phones, laptops and battery powered devices. But there’s a few problems with the metal. First and foremost, it’s extremely dangerous and hard to recycle; only 5% of Lithium batteries are currently recycled. By 2030 it is expected that there will be 11 million tonnes of redundant Lithium-ion batteries. Yikes!
It’s not just the afterlife of Lithium that’s concerning, it’s how it’s mined! Lithium is extracted by pumping salt rich water from 60 metres below salt flats to the surface, and letting the sun evaporate the content to leave potassium and lithium which is then separated through electrolysis. Bolivia currently has 50-70% of the world’s Lithium reserves. With the economic opportunity for low income countries too big to miss, many like Bolivia are resorting to indefinitely damaging natural salt flats like the Salar de Uyuni, to lift their people out of poverty. Who can blame them?
So how long does an electric car battery last? Well it can do a pretty good job. According to a Turkish YouTuber, his Renault Zoe has reached an astonishing 345,000km with the battery’s health still at 96%! This is extremely encouraging as that surpasses the lifespan of most fossil fuel cars. Like many others, I have been sceptical about the life of these enormous Lithium car batteries, but this really does offer some hope; if an electric car can live and work longer than a fossil fuelled car, the future is promising. It is still a concern as to what happens with these batteries after their use, but when there are problems there are usually solutions… eventually.
A lot of talk about cars is to do with pollution, but it’s not just the air that vehicles pollute, it’s also our water. As you drive, microplastics fall off the tyres and are washed away through drainage systems and eventually into the rivers and oceans. Tyre plastics are the second largest micro pollutant in our oceans. Let that sink in. You could still be driving an electric car and still damage the planet. But not to worry, a solution has already been discovered, thanks to the James Dyson Award National winner, The Tyre Collective. Go check out YouTube! As of yet the government aren’t saying anything about tyre debris, but at least it looks like there could be a solution.
A fact that should shock you to the bones, is that for every journey of 3km or less, 6 out of 10 people in the UK drive. What a bunch of lazy bastards we are! Obviously sometimes you need a car for a journey of less than 3km; it could be the weekly shop, taking your grandma out or even moving something big cars are practical machines of course. But for getting somewhere under 3km? Well even at a modest pace, that would take an average person 30 minutes to walk and 10 minutes to cycle. Easy right? The car is very much part of how we get around, changing how we all use it is pretty much impossible.
Let’s be honest though, the car isn’t just a way to get around, it’s a status symbol. As humans, whether we like to admit it or not, we all care about how we’re perceived, some of us more than others. It transpires through how we dress, where we shop, where we go on holiday, the phone you have and perhaps, the car you drive. Do you really need the newest flashy iPhone with 20 or so cameras? The chances are no, you don’t. Year on year, smart phones are becoming disproportionately more expensive and not because of inflation. The real reason, is that phone companies know most of us will buy a phone on a contract. They can therefore justify excessively inflating the price because the customer doesn’t have to pay it in one go, the real cost of the phone is divided into smaller payments. Suddenly that desirable phone is attainable, even on a modest income.
Unfortunately, this same trick is being used in the automotive industry. In 2018 in the UK, 91% of new cars were bought on finance. Well cars are expensive, surely finance is just a more convenient way to buy one? Except, just like with smartphones, car PCP schemes are helping manufacturers to disproportionately push up the price of a car and start a vicious cycle. On PCP, you never actually own the car unless you pay a hefty lump sum at the end of the contract. My problem with these kind of schemes is that they encourage us consumers to constantly get the next thing, it’s all just too excessive! A car should be an investment, like a house, not upgradeable like a smartphone. At the end of the day, manufacturers will always want to sell more and make more money. That’s why they do business. The issue is that we live on a planet with finite resources and ever increasing consumption. Our economies depend on consumerism and have no real incentive for the greater good of humanity, and that’s all too worrying.
Perhaps the single most destructive change in the automotive industry in only the last decade, has been the rise of the SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle). I hate them and anyone pompous enough to own one, and you should too. Since 2010 they have been the second biggest source of rising carbon emissions and if you were to consider them as a nation, they would be the 7th biggest polluter in the world. As I said earlier, I’ve always loved cars and been passionate about the engineering and design of them. But you don’t have to be into cars or know anything about engineering to work out that driving a big, heavy, brick of a vehicle is inefficient and bad for the planet.
What makes SUVs even more infuriating, is the people who drive them. Whenever a passing SUV catches my eye, more often than not there is just the driver inside, no-one else. You have to be immensely self-important to drive around by yourself in a 2 tonne Earth destroying tank with a clear conscience. Please spread the word. I can’t help but feel that the SUV sums up everything that’s wrong with us humans. It’s become fashionable and a ‘must have’, that’s why they’re popular. We’ve known about the effect cars have on pollution, especially big cars, for a really long time. So why are people buying SUVs? There’s something wrong with how we justify what we buy, it’s all to do with thinking we need something when really we don’t. It’s a worrying cycle and I hope we can become more self aware in this regard. The problem is that we’ll become used to big SUVs, and as we transition to electric cars many of these will continue to be SUV variants. As a result, even more electricity will be needed to charge these monsters and more natural resources will be needed to build them.
So back to the ban then. Well in my opinion, it’s probably the only good thing this government has actually done. It wouldn’t surprise me if other countries quickly followed suit, once they’re less preoccupied with Coronavirus. Our government had to do something to repair their reputation but whether it has or not is of course an entirely different matter. But there’s a bigger picture to look at here and that’s climate change and the preservation of our beautiful planet. As I have hinted in relation to cars, our need to have the latest model and to constantly upgrade our belongings is unhealthy, and like our depletion of natural resources, unsustainable. To really tackle these challenges, governments need to intervene to change our behaviour, acting against typical economic interest, and that’s a tall order. Climate change is a global problem and that obviously means working together, which seems increasingly difficult these days as the geo politics of the world seem to implode. I have every faith that the car and how we use it can adapt to help look after our planet, but against the bigger picture I worry that it’s all too little, too late.
On a lighter note, it’s worth recognising that an inevitable consequence of life on this planet is that it can become extinct. To paraphrase Bill Bryson from A Short History of Nearly Everything, the more complex and ambitious life gets, the more likely it is to go extinct. At some point we won’t be around on this planet anymore, and Mother Nature will reclaim it as her own. In some ways that’s rather reassuring, given how badly we seem to treat it. Let’s just hope that the people who currently run things in this world keel over sooner than later, so the rest of us can properly start to repair the damage already done.
By James Drujon