The Car Must Die. But Let’s Get the Reasons and the Replacement Right.

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CC BY 2.0. Germans can make very nice electric cars/ Lloyd Alter

Cars kill thousands every day, wreck our cities, and spout CO2. What should we do about it?

Emily Atkin of the New Republic writes that The modern automobile must die. It is customary in the industry that the people who write the headlines do not write the stories, but this one is troubling because there is somewhat of a disconnect between the two. Atkins makes a very interesting argument, looking at the example of Germany; here is a country with strict commitment to reducing emissions, but she says that they are likely to miss their targets because everyone loves their cars.

Changing the way we power our homes and businesses is certainly important. But as Germany’s shortfall shows, the only way to achieve these necessary, aggressive emissions reductions to combat global warming is to overhaul the gas-powered automobile and the culture that surrounds it. The only question left is how to do it.
As the economy in Germany grows, people are buying more and bigger cars. Yet according to one consultant Atkin quotes, for Germany to meet emissions targets, “half of the people who now use their cars alone would have to switch to bicycles, public transport, or ride-sharing.” Atkin says that electric cars are not the answer, either:
One could get away with more modest infrastructure investments if governments required carmakers to make their vehicle fleets more fuel-efficient, thereby burning less petroleum. The problem is that most automakers seek to meet those requirements by developing electric cars. If those cars are charged with electricity from a coal-fired power plant, they create “more emissions than a car that burns petrol,” energy storage expert Dénes Csala pointed out last year. “For such a switch to actually reduce net emissions, the electricity that powers those cars must be renewable.”
Germany's power mix

Strom-Report/CC BY 2.0

Now this TreeHugger completely agrees that cars have to die, but this article does the cause a disservice. First of all, that statement by Dénes Csala is just not true; study after study has shown that only in the rarest of circumstances, like when a car is charging entirely with coal power, is it dirtier than an electric car. In Germany, 40 percent of electricity is generated by burning coal, but the other sources are much cleaner. The grid is also getting cleaner and cleaner every year, so every year electric cars run cleaner.

According to a recent study, even in Poland, with the dirtiest power in Europe, “ a battery-powered vehicle in Poland, well-to-wheel, emits 25% less carbon dioxide over its lifetime than a diesel car.” And diesels were promoted because they produce less CO2 than gas. The tired argument that electric cars are dirtier than gas is used by those who want to stop progress and kill decarbonization, not promote it.

The main problem in Germany is that, post-Fukushima, the German population has become seriously anti-nuclear, and the Government has been shutting down nuclear plants, with plans for them all to be offline by 2022. Less carbon-free nuclear power means more coal is needed for base load. As one researcher noted, “the variability of the renewables means Germany has to keep the coal plants running, over half of which use the dirtiest of all coal, lignite.”

Atkin writes that, last year, “the transportation industry’s emissions increased by 2.3 percent, as car ownership expanded and the booming economy meant more heavy vehicles were on the road.” But there is a counter-trend also at work; according to The Local, young people are not buying cars like they used to.

berlin transit

Who needs a car when you have transit and bike infrastructure like this/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 1.0

"For the young generation, it is no longer so important to have their first Golf or their first Peugeot. They prefer to spend money on experiences," said Gero Graf, director of the German operations of Drivy, a French startup that allows car-owners to rent out their vehicle to other people when they are not using it themselves. Germany, the cradle of the automobile industry, is also the world leader in car sharing. In Berlin, 45 percent of households do not own a car.

police cars

Even the police get really nice fast cars/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And this is happening even as the Government actually encourages drivers to drive more and bigger cars. According to the Economist:

“Free driving for free citizens” runs one German saying. Bosses and politicians flit between cities on autobahns with no speed limits. Germans pay no road tax. Tax policy keeps diesel substantially cheaper at the pump than petrol, nudging consumers to prefer big cars that rely on diesel engines to meet emissions regulations. Other tax rules also encourage companies to provide workers with premium cars and fuel allowances.

So it is politically impossible to keep the nuclear plants open, and it is economically disastrous to do anything that hurts the vast economic engine that is the German car industry. No wonder they are having trouble meeting emissions targets.

Actually, Germany does a lot of things to make it very easy to live without a car. There are fast trains, fabulous transit, long distance bike trails between cities. They are belatedly investing in electric cars since their diesels are seriously dead or dying after the VW scandal, and Teslas are the most popular luxury car on the market now.

Atkin is never really serious about actually killing the modern automobile as her title suggests. Her prescription:

Governments would require drastic improvements in fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles, while investing in renewable-powered electric car infrastructure. At the same time, cities would overhaul their public transportation systems, adding more bikes, trains, buses and ride-shares. Fewer people would own cars.

That’s a start. Then do what her title said: The modern automobile must die. Kill it in cities. Decarbonize it everywhere else. And learn from what’s happening in Germany, good and bad.