|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 212 October 2017
Should socialists dream of electric cars?
The UK is to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, the government announced in July, promoting a move to electric vehicles. The Tory-led government has put on its best green suit – after last year overturning Lancashire council’s rejection of a fracking site despite all the attendant concerns for the environment. So, are we at the beginning of an electric revolution? And is this the solution that the planet needs?
Responses to the announcement varied. The Telegraph went into attack mode: "Revealed: Government’s electric car revolution could cost more than £200 billion… 10,000 wind turbines or ten nuclear power stations would need to be built to power their electric replacements". The National Grid would come under "immense pressure" from a "mass switch-on" after the evening rush hour. (26 July 2017)
This year’s unprecedented hurricanes show just how light-minded the Telegraph’s approach is. Global warming may not increase the frequency of hurricanes but when they come the extra heat in the oceans creates monsters of colossal proportions. The urgency of a transition to 100% carbon-free energy is clear.
On 23 August, a 27-strong team at Stanford University, California, published a study showing how 139 countries, accounting for 99% of all carbon dioxide emissions, could transition to 100% powered by wind, water and sunlight by 2050. The benefits: "Less worldwide energy consumption due to the efficiency of renewable electricity; a net increase of over 24 million long-term jobs; an annual decrease in 4-7 million air pollution deaths per year; stabilisation of energy prices". (Science Daily, 23 August) Annual savings of $50 trillion from health benefits and the alleviation of climate costs are projected. The technology exists today.
"The government’s plan does not go nearly far enough", Frank J Kelly, chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (the UK government’s advisory body), told the Guardian. Although electric cars produce no dangerous nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gasses, all cars produce microscopic particle pollution from brake discs, tyres and road dust. "Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars", Kelly said. (Guardian, 4 August)
What is the real answer to these questions? Certainly, new technology has scuppered the old gripes about the time it takes to charge electric vehicles, their range and their cost. Battery prices have halved and halved again, and a new study in the use of magnesium instead of the relatively rare lithium shows the ongoing transitioning from rare materials to abundant ones in batteries. Charging times are falling rapidly. Electric vehicle ranges can be as far as 350 miles, and a charging top-up can take only half an hour, although a full charge might still take four hours or more.
All these gains and much more could have been achieved decades ago if the full force of research spent by the competing vehicle and energy industries had been focused on averting climate change instead of finding better ways to extract oil and build faster cars. Nationalised energy and vehicle industries, under a socialist plan, would have long ago abandoned the internal combustion engine with huge benefits to health and the planet.
It could also plan enough charging points – there’s currently a shortage. "Eventually", David Bailey, a car industry expert, told the BBC, "batteries will be standardised and we will simply drive in, swap batteries over and drive off". (BBC News24, 7 September) Again, something that would be elementary to a socialist, democratically planned society remains a far-off dream under the market system.
Further, it would be much better if overworked people did not have to drive to and from work but were carried there in comfort, skyping on laptops using free wifi. By comparison, it takes little more than a sudden downpour in the rush hour to halt motorways while some individual is cut out of wreckage minus their legs. This is the stark contrast society faces.
An individualistic, capitalist society which wastes huge amounts of energy forcing each individual to provide, insure, maintain and run their own transport – a huge, dangerous chunk of costly metal – at their own risk to life and limb and those they crash into. Or a collective society which takes care to ensure the basic provision of services such as transport are provided by well-paid, professionally-trained experts. A society which recognises that, if work means travel, that is part of the collective effort of the workforce to produce the wealth of society, and so gives the worker the respect and the time to do it in comfort. And a society which gives people far more leisure time so that there is no rush to get from A to B.
The long-term, socialist answer, therefore, is not just electric vehicles but readily available, cheap, high quality, efficient public transport. Car use naturally falls away as it becomes more expensive and troublesome to the individual, and dangerous and costly to society. After all, although electric vehicles can now drive significant distances on one charge, is it safe to advocate that people drive for more than an hour or two without a good break? Clearly not. In 2015, 1,732 people were killed and 22,137 seriously injured on Britain’s roads. Electric vehicles do nothing to alleviate that, or the microscopic particle pollution. By comparison, there were no reported deaths on the railways in 2015. So, at the very least, all journeys ought to be broken up with plenty of opportunity to charge both human and car batteries.
In a socialist society, new technology would be used to shorten hours rather than replace staff. The leisurely train journey or cycle ride replaces the traffic jams. Where cars are necessary, electric vehicles should be introduced without delay. Electric buses could replace the school run. Online shopping and home delivery is to an extent already replacing the weekly trip to the supermarket.
Cars will always be necessary for those who cannot use public transport, however much of the country, even the smallest villages, were covered efficiently by buses and rail – which is far from the case at present. So electric vehicles will be an important addition. However, propaganda asserting that the transition to a carbon-free future is not realistic or too costly has no scientific basis. A socialist plan would ensure plentiful reserves of energy for charging vehicles if required.
Every structure could collect, distribute and store energy freely available from sunlight. It is the fossil fuel industry which, due to the costs of fuel and long distribution lines, cuts energy production to the edge risking the brown-outs (deliberate voltage reductions) well known in big cities in the USA. In fact, energy from wind and solar is less prone to large-scale failure because it is comprised of many small sources that are interconnected, rather than relying on a single large power plant – a little like the concept behind the internet.
The Stanford study shows that, by eliminating oil, gas, and uranium use in power production, the energy required in mining, transporting and refining these fuels is also eliminated. The projected cost of their plan is one fourth that of renewing current fossil and nuclear fuel supplies. Electricity is far more efficient than burning fossil fuels, so the total saving in terms of energy worldwide amounts to more than 40%.
Finally, the study would, the authors suppose, reduce ‘international conflict’ over energy resources – meaning oil. They also say it would "increase worldwide access to energy" in countries where millions have little access to energy. In reality, those issues are political not technical and, once again, require a socialist solution.
When hurricanes approach US cities, chaotic last-minute evacuations bring gridlock to the roads. Seventy-three people died in gridlocked cars when Houston ordered an evacuation for Hurricane Rita in 2005 – so there was no evacuation for Harvey! The poorest have no means to escape in any case, with little public transport infrastructure. A socialist society would evacuate a large city in a planned fashion using a well-developed and free public transport system. Electric cars are to be welcomed but what’s really needed is system change.