There’s No Pleasing the Environmentalists

Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot opines that Electric cars won’t solve our pollution problems – Britain needs a total transport rethink.While his is a British view of the issue, his opinion serves a good cautionary tale.

Could it be true? That this government will bring all sales of petrol and diesel cars to an end by 2030? That it will cancel all rail franchises and replace them with a system that might actually work? Could the UK, for the first time since the internal combustion engine was invented, really be contemplating a rational transport policy? Hold your horses.

Is bringing all sales of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles to an end by 2030 rational transport policy? In a country as small as Great Britain, electrics are certainly more practical than they are here in North America. The same can be said for rail. What will the franchise based private rail system be replaced with? Unions and the former head of rail under the Labour party want to go back to a state operated system, even though that system was also terrible, and since privitization began 25 years ago, ridership had been steadily increasing prior to the pandemic.

A switch to electric cars will reduce pollution. It won’t eliminate it, as a high proportion of the microscopic particles thrown into the air by cars, which are highly damaging to our health, arise from tyres grating on the surface of the road. Tyre wear is also by far the biggest source of microplastics pouring into our rivers and the sea. And when tyres, regardless of the engine that moves them, come to the end of their lives, we still have no means of properly recycling them.

OMFG. How do you get a loss out of the win that complete electrification would give to the environment?

Cars are an environmental hazard long before they leave the showroom. One estimate suggests that the carbon emissions produced in building each one equate to driving it for 150,000km. The rise in electric vehicle sales has created a rush for minerals such as lithium and copper, with devastating impacts on beautiful places. If the aim is greatly to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and replace those that remain with battery-operated models, then they will be part of the solution. But if, as a forecast by the National Grid proposes, the current fleet is replaced by 35m electric cars, we’ll simply create another environmental disaster.

Yes, manufacturing goods generates emissions. Same can be said for manufacturing gasoline powered vehicles. You need to look at net emissions. If you think zero emissions from anything is the only solution, why not start a nuclear war and wipe out humanity? Lithium can be mined from sea water. Currently, its harvested from salt flats, which few people would call beautiful places. Open pit copper mines are admittedly a blight upon the eyes. What is the alternative? Again, if the environmental outcome from electrics is better overall, why not take the win?

Switching power sources does nothing to address the vast amount of space the car demands, which could otherwise be used for greens, parks, playgrounds and homes. It doesn’t stop cars from carving up community and turning streets into thoroughfares and outdoor life into a mortal hazard. Electric vehicles don’t solve congestion, or the extreme lack of physical activity that contributes to our poor health.

Do people want to give up the freedom of car ownership? If not, who the eff are you to demand they do so? Would politicians and the rich be forced to abandon their vehicles too, or is it rules for thee but not for me?

So far, the government seems to have no interest in systemic change. It still plans to spend £27bn on building even more roads, presumably to accommodate all those new electric cars. An analysis by Transport for Quality of Life suggests that this road-building will cancel out 80% of the carbon savings from a switch to electric over the next 12 years. But everywhere, even in the government’s feted garden villages and garden towns, new developments are being built around the car.

I would assume they are building roads because they know if they don’t, the people will hand them their walking papers. As long as you have a free country and we plebs like the freedom that cars give us, it seems sensible to build with this in mind. Again, emissions from building roads would be incurred with or without electrics. Conflating these two issues is ridiculous.

Rail policy is just as irrational. The construction of HS2, now projected to cost £106bn, has accelerated in the past few months, destroying precious wild places along the way, though its weak business case has almost certainly been destroyed by coronavirus.

And when the pandemic has abated, if the project is abandoned, you will bemoan the government’s lack of progress on improving the rail system. Are you implying that coronavirus lock-downs should be permanent?

If one thing changes permanently as a result of the pandemic, it is likely to be travel. Many people will never return to the office. The great potential of remote technologies, so long untapped, is at last being realised. Having experienced quieter cities with cleaner air, few people wish to return to the filthy past.

This is true for some, but there will be plenty of jobs that are not amenable to remote work.

Like several of the world’s major cities, our capital is being remodelled in response. The London mayor – recognising that, while fewer passengers can use public transport, a switch to cars would cause gridlock and lethal pollution – has set aside road space for cycling and walking. Greater Manchester hopes to build 1,800 miles of protected pedestrian and bicycle routes.

If people do indeed use these routes to the same capacity that they would be used by automobiles, or ideally more, then I agree this is sound practice. Will that be the case once Coronavirus subsides, or will people return to transit and leave your bike lanes empty?

Cycling to work is described by some doctors as “the miracle pill”, massively reducing the chances of early death: if you want to save the NHS, get on your bike. But support from central government is weak and contradictory, and involves a fraction of the money it is spending on new roads. The major impediment to a cycling revolution is the danger of being hit by a car.

Another major impediment is weather. Riding in the run is horrible. In Canada, snow covered roads can make bicycling completely impractical.

Even a switch to bicycles (including electric bikes and scooters) is only part of the answer. Fundamentally, this is not a vehicle problem but an urban design problem. Or rather, it is an urban design problem created by our favoured vehicle. Cars have made everything bigger and further away. Paris, under its mayor Anne Hidalgo, is seeking to reverse this trend, by creating a “15-minute city”, in which districts that have been treated by transport planners as mere portals to somewhere else become self-sufficient communities – each with their own shops, parks, schools and workplaces, within a 15-minute walk of everyone’s home.

Central planning doesn’t work. I think that cities can improve things with regulation and infrastructure improvements, but the state cannot force businesses to relocate. There is a reason that clusters of firms in a single industry happen: synergy. While over time, videoconferencing and other technologies may make the need for business districts less, the state cannot force this change, only help to enable it.

This, I believe, is the radical shift that all towns and cities need. It would transform our sense of belonging, our community life, our health and our prospects of local employment, while greatly reducing pollution, noise and danger. Transport has always been about much more than transport. The way we travel helps to determine the way we live. And at the moment, locked in our metal boxes, we do not live well.

And who will determine whether or not I am allowed to own a vehicle? These metal boxes transformed the world, allowing freedom of movement when the economy in one area became depressed. The state cannot create “local employment”. Taking away people’s freedom to choose where they live is not the solution. I would rather live free than be told what to do by dimwit state bureaucrats, who have shown they are good at only one thing: making sure that they are the ones to benefit when freedoms are taken from the people.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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1 Response to There’s No Pleasing the Environmentalists

  1. One thing that pleases looter Luddites is the kindness of bestowing upon them the title of Environmentalists, instead of forest arsonists, econazis, illiterate cultists and flim-flam artists. All the ones who in the 70s and 80s sabotaged power plants to increase the death rate are today–without exception–purveyors of Misanthropic Global Warmunism everywhere except in totalitarian dictatorships.

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