Electric Cars Alone Won't Save Us, Says New UK Parliamentary Report; Get a Bike Instead

Public Domain. The future we want: bikes and trams

It calls for more support of bikes, walking and transit, banning ICE-powered cars sooner.

The title of this post has been revised (the word alone added) after complaints did it did not accurately summarize the report.

Writing in Forbes, Carlton Reid points to a fascinating report from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (PDF here), looking at technologies for meeting the UK's emissions reduction targets. Reid quotes the study:

“In the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonization,” says the blistering parliamentary report.

There are many things to admire in this study, which covers power generation, transport, heating and more, starting with the makeup of the committee. (We will look at the heating and energy recommendations next.) In Canada or the USA, where supporting the fossil fuel industry is government policy #1, you would never get four different parties agreeing to something like this. You couldn't even get them to agree on the fact that climate change is a problem. Instead you get powerful stuff right in the summary, especially with respect to transport:

The transport sector is now the largest-emitting sector of the UK economy. The Government should bring forward the proposed ban on sales of new conventional cars and vans to 2035 at the latest. This ban should explicitly cover hybrid as well as internal combustion engines. There are significant emissions associated with the manufacture of vehicles. In the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation. The Government should not aim to achieve emissions reductions simply by replacing existing vehicles with lower-emissions versions.
Alongside the Government’s existing targets and policies, it must develop a strategy to stimulate a low-emissions transport system, with the metrics and targets to match. This should aim to reduce the number of vehicles required, for example by: promoting and improving public transport; reducing its cost relative to private transport; encouraging vehicle usership in place of ownership; and encouraging and supporting increased levels of walking and cycling.

Reid writes that there is "little comfort in the report for electric bicycle fans either because the committee warns that the rare minerals required for electric vehicle batteries are fast running out and are sourced from unstable countries with dire records on workers’ rights." (This is a point we have made before.)

So far as I can find, the report never actually mentions e-bikes except in the discussion of last-mile e-cargo bikes, but it does discuss the problems of material resources required for electric batteries, and that there are “many long-term supply questions in the context of a booming industry, unanswered”.

Gazelle under the bentway

Gazell Medeo on the Bentway Park/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But seriously, if you want to give people who drive an alternative, e-bikes are not a bad option. If the amount of rare earths and lithium are proportional to the size of the battery, then my .4 kw/hr Bosch battery on the back of my Gazelle uses 1/75th as much as a Nissan Leaf and 1/250th of a Tesla Model S with a 100 kw/hr battery, which is a very good reason to promote e-bikes; they sip lithium by comparison to cars. If anything, the report gives a great deal of comfort to e-bike fans like me.

The report makes clear that "one important factor in consumers’ decisions to purchase a vehicle or not would be the availability, quality and cost of public transport, alternative options such as walking and cycling, and car share schemes." We know this from everywhere: if people don't have transit alternatives that are close, affordable and regular, they will drive. If they can't walk or bike because there are no safe and direct routes, they will drive.

That's one reason we get so frustrated with nice big cash rebates some governments give to people who buy electric cars, while giving nothing to other approaches that might get people out of cars. Or why transit fares keep going up, but fuel taxes never do. The report actually suggests that "the Government should commit to ensuring that the annual increase in fuel duty should never be lower than the average increase in rail or bus fares."

I have said it again and again: Electric cars won't save us. I'm relieved to see the House of Commons Science and Tech committee is saying that, too.