UK unplugged as EU leads the charge

The Coalition Government’s low-carbon vehicle policies are seemingly at odds with the EU’s strategy for a low carbon transport infrastructure.

Last year, an inquiry was held by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee into low carbon vehicles. A ‘call for evidence’ from interested parties was made by the Committee, and among those who submitted evidence was the Applied Research Centre for Sustainable Regeneration (aka SURGE), the research body at Coventry University at which I am based for my PhD. I even put in my own submission too.

The final report, entitled ‘Plug-in Vehicles, Plugged in Policy?’, was published in September 2012 and made suggestions as to how knowledge and uptake of plug-in and electric vehicles – or Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs) – could be fostered and improved, such as standardising chargepoints and suggesting a target number of plug-in vehicles in the road.

Earlier this week, the Coalition Government published its response to the select committee’s findings. Unfortunately – though perhaps unsurprisingly given the way that recent UK governments have been in thrall the free market to the detriment of everything else – the Coalition Government has decided not to do what it can to encourage a nascent low-carbon technology in which the UK could assert a lead (badum tish!), but instead to let the free hand of the market choose which of the various infrastructure and socket types employed by the various ‘Plug-in Places’ schemes up and down the country, claiming that

whilst we see there are advantages of a single recharging plug solution … our stance is that it is for the market and industry to decide what charging hardware and infrastructure will be”.

Are these different socket types compatible? What do you think? I’d be intrigued to know how many electric vehicles (EVs) regularly travel between these different locales with their various sockets and so decide which one is ‘best’. It’s as if the Coalition Government is quite happy to send the users of plug-in and electric vehicles back to the days before the National Grid was established.

Guilty as charged? The UK Government seems to have opted for business as usual - also known as chicken and egg - when it comes to plug-in vehicles. (Picture souce: authors photograph)

Guilty as charged? The UK Government seems to have opted for business as usual – also known as chicken and egg – when it comes to plug-in vehicles. (Picture souce: authors photograph)

The Coalition Government also believes that it is not its place to set targets for plug-in vehicles, again preferring to let the market decide, even though a target or ‘milestone’ would provide a marker for how successful (or otherwise) its policy has been.

That response was published two days ago. Today, the EU announced a ‘clean fuel strategy’, ranging from electricity to hydrogen to biofuels to natural gas, and setting targets for the number of electric vehicles and charging points by 2020. Included in the proposals was the announcement of the adoption of a common plug for electric vehicles – the ‘Type-2’ plug – so as to end “uncertainty in the market” as a means to foster “a critical mass of charging points so that companies will mass produce the cars at reasonable prices”. Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Action, said

We can finally stop the chicken and the egg discussion on whether infrastructure needs to be there before the large scale roll-out of electric vehicles. With our proposed binding targets for charging points using a common plug, electric vehicles are set to hit the road in Europe. This is climate mainstreaming in action. And a win for the climate, businesses, consumers and jobs“.

How very forward-looking and progressive. Now, compare and contrast those sentiments with the response of the UK government to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee report, and note how positive it sounds compared to almost craven market-led response of our ‘Coalition’ Government, which maintains in its response that it ‘remains committed’ to:

making the UK one of the premier markets for ULEVs, supporting the early market through the plug-in grants until at least 2015, and to continuing to work with partners in the automotive industry to remove barriers to adoption”.

Yeah, looks like it. With their decision to build the Leaf in Sunderland, perhaps Nissan are showing more of a commitment to ULEVs in the UK than the Coalition Government is!

Once again, Europe shows itself to be more environmentally progressive than the UK, with the Coalition Government’s response to the Transport Select Committee’s report seemingly contradicting the EU’s Clean Fuel Strategy. Compared to the EU strategy, the Coalition Government’s approach to fostering an adoption of ULEVs in the UK seems to underline just how backward it is in promoting a low carbon automobility – perhaps the EU’s Clean Fuel Strategy is something else upon which the Prime Minister thinks the EU has ‘gone too far’. And yet, when it comes to climate change and the environment, we are actually all in it together. Whatever happened to ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, Dave?

Something in the air

In a recent report, air pollution has been recognised as one of the top 10 global disease risk factors. Can low carbon vehicles make a difference?

A report published recently in The Lancet medical journal and highlighted here by the Green Car Reports website has investigated ‘the global burden of disease’ between 1990-2010 and listed blood pressure, smoking and alcohol use as the three leading risks to global health in 2010. But the article’s abstract also refers to ‘changes in the magnitude of … ambient particulate matter pollution’. As increasingly affluent populations aspire to the motor car, such pollution will surely increase as global automobility, led by China and India, also increases.

We’ve all seen pictures of the Los Angeles haze and the Beijing smog. From my own experience of walking down Oxford Road in Manchester, reportedly Europe’s busiest bus route, the localised air pollution from the petrol and/or diesel internal combustion engine (ICE) is almost tangible. We drink in an airborne cocktail of carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOX), ozone (O3), hydrocarbons (HC) and  particulate matter of various sizes (PM10 and PM2.5) along every busy road we walk down. I have to say that I’ve tasted nicer cocktails.

Thanks to improved emission technologies and EU bureaucrats beating car manufacturers with their legislative sticks, cars sold in Europe are much cleaner than they once were and, as a result, air pollution from the internal combustion engine has greatly reduced, and will continue to do so. Yet we should remember that this is perhaps tantamount to ‘running to stand still’, as localised air pollution will continue to be a problem as car numbers increase.

The electric vehicle (EV), promoted ostensibly as low carbon transport, provides an answer to this issue. Admittedly, the environmental credentials of EVs are called into question given a largely fossil-fuelled mode of electricity generation and, with a blinkered government seemingly intent on pursuing fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy sources, it is true to say that the UK’s current energy mix means that equivalent CO2 emission figures of EVs – while still lower than those of ICEs – may not be quite as hoped.

But in focussing on carbon reduction, we may overlook the fact that EVs not only lack tailpipe CO2 emissions – they also lack tailpipe emissions of CO, SO2, NOX, O3, HC and PM; any tailpipe emissions, in fact. While accused by some of merely transferring carbon emissions, EVs could actually play a real part in reducing more localised, urban air pollution.

But the fact that the car is more than mere transport means that there’s more to reducing local emissions than simply changing technologies.

Will cars like the Renault Twizy lead the charge (ahem) to a low carbon urban automobility? (Picture source: author's photograph)

Will cars like the Renault Twizy lead the charge (ahem) to a low carbon urban automobility? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

For example, in an earlier post, Défense de fumer, I mused upon my cultural unease about the potential exclusion of les voitures iconique from the streets of Paris on account of their age related emissions, and wondered if EVs like the AutoLib Bollore BlueCar or Renault Twizy might become new Parisian automotive icons. Cars don’t just carry people; indeed it is precisely because they carry people that they inevitably carry experiences and meanings. My early research suggests that EVs provide a different experience of, and meaning to, how we present and perform – or affect – individual automobilities and I wonder about the degree to which we are culturally ready to change ‘how’ we go from here. Can we change? Do we even want to?

EVs may not be the answer to the environmental impact of the car; they are instead an answer. Costs, practicalities and even desirability would appear to demand a suite of technologies to ameliorate our automotive environmental impacts, and the electric car is perhaps the most immediate answer to the provision of a low carbon automobility. Even if we are absolutely wedded to the notion of personal mobility and to our beloved cars, a wider adoption of EVs in an urban environment would at least mean that we can all start to breathe easier.