Dispatching diesel

On 26th January, an episode of Channel 4’s series of ‘Dispatches’ documentaries series claimed we’ve been ‘conned’ into automotively contributing towards local pollution. Is this really the case?

Exhausting... (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Exhausting… (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Traffic, as powered by the internal combustion engine, creates air pollution. It burns, ergo it pollutes, and yet ‘externalities’ such as the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuels seemingly go unregarded, or at least uncosted. I’ve blogged about this issue before but, last week, it made main prime-time television.

The premise of the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme entitled ‘The Great Car Con’ (available to view until late February) was that the general public was ‘conned’ into buying diesel cars under the premise of their ‘greenness’ and that impending environmental legislation means that those who thought they were doing the right thing may soon be penalised, something I alluded to in a blog post for the Tyndall Centre.

The main justification for diesel’s claimed environmental benefits, and one that was repeated during the programme, was that they do more miles per gallon and, therefore, they emit less carbon dioxide (CO2).

This isn’t strictly true. Diesel contains more carbon than petrol – for example, it was noted in a 2003 paper that there was 2.7kg of embedded carbon in a litre of diesel, compared to 2.4kg in petrol. However, the greater fuel economy of diesel cars does permit lower CO2 per km figures compared to petrol cars, if not a specifically lower CO2 figure per litre, something that wasn’t made clear in the programme.

It may seem pedantic, but would diesel have been thought of as clean or ‘green’ if the specific carbon content of these fuels was initially made clear to the motoring public?

Indeed, the notion or perception of diesel as ‘clean’ is incongruous, as anyone who has stood in the vicinity of a bus as it has pulled away from a bus stop will testify. CO2 aside, all fossil fuels emit a cocktail of pollutants when burned, and their differing combustion characteristics mean that diesel vehicles emit more of such pollutants as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – now more recognised as life-threatening – than do petrol ones, up to 3×NO2, so the programme claimed.

One thing that the programme seemed to illustrate was the efficacy of fiscal levers – in diesel’s case, CO2/km-based VED (or ‘road tax’) bands – in changing consumer patterns; indeed, new diesel car sales recently overtook new petrol car sales.

Manipulation of the EU’s soon-to-be-replaced NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) laboratory test – something noted by European NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) – was also highlighted in the programme, and brought an interesting quote from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), who claimed that car makers ‘can only meet the regulations’.

However, as we now know more about the health and environmental impacts of fossil-fuelled transport, and if the internal combustion engine is to remain with us for some time yet, here’s a radical idea – how about car makers meeting the science? If being seen to be green is important (and, apparently, it is), imagine what a PR coup beating legislation – rather than merely meeting legislation – would be, and not with some of the spurious manufacturers claims noted by T&E.

So were we conned into buying diesels? I think ‘conned’ is a bit strong – perhaps ‘misled’ is nearer the mark, largely because the fact that there’s more to car emissions than CO2 (a key greenhouse gas, don’t forget) was somehow overlooked. However, if ‘meeting regulations’ is really all car makers can do, then perhaps it’s time that governments, whether at national or supranational level, addressed NO2 and PM emissions as they have previously done CO2 emissions – measure it, levy it (at least in the nearer term) until it is sufficiently reduced.

One thing that is clear is that whether as a consequence of petrol’s CO2/km emissions compared to diesel, or of diesel’s NO2 and PM emissions compared to petrol, it seems we can’t have it all ways with the internal combustion engine.

How do we go from here?

We aspire to the car, we want the car, and we desire the car. But will the way we regard the car stop us from choosing a less polluting, low-carbon car? (Picture: classicfordmag.com)

Somewhere around here I suggested that this blog would pertain to my PhD study, as well as to other automotive, environmental and geographical gubbins that take my fancy. As such, I would like to use my first academic(ish) post to introduce my research. How is the way we ‘consume’ the car manifest, and will the need for more environmentally friendly personal transport change our relationship with the car forever?

We aspire to the car, we want the car, and we desire the car. But will the way we regard the car stop us from choosing a less polluting, low-carbon car? (Picture: classicfordmag.co.uk)

The transport sector is responsible for up to 25% of all man-made carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions. The dominant source of CO2 within the transport sector is the car, which is responsible for just over half these emissions. In other words, just over 10% of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions come from the use of our beloved cars.

The need to act so as to mitigate the environmental impacts of our actions, or, as I call it, the ‘environmental imperative’, demands that we adopt a low carbon mobility to mitigate the environmental impacts of our movements. However, contemporary society – whether by dint of the spread of suburbia, various shift patterns or a fragmented public transport system seemingly run for profit and not for the public – appears to demand a low carbon automobility.

Much has been written about the costs, impracticalities and/or technologies of low carbon vehicles in academia and in the media. But how many of us think about the way in which we consume the car ‘as object’? How might the environmental impact of the car be influenced by the contemporaneous socio-cultural consumption of the car?

When I use the phrase ‘consume the car’, I don’t use it as a reference to how and why we use it; any motorist will tell you that the car is very useful, very convenient, if a bit pricey these days. Instead, I use it in reference to how we regard the car as status symbol, as icon, as cultural artefact, as avatar, as experience. I believe that how we ‘consume’ the car is fundamental to the environmental impact we have individually as motorists, because such consumption influences our choice of car, how we view the car, how we aspire to the car, how we drive the car, how we feel the car.

And why we will keep on wanting, if not needing, the car.

However, the pursuit of various low carbon automotive technologies as a means to address the environmental imperative could suggest that the nature of the car may change. In one of his columns for CAR magazine in 1996, Stephen Bayley described the car as a mature product, in that we know what it is, what it does, what to expect from it. We’ve become conditioned to the car and how it works which, in turn, impacts upon how we consume it. Yet various low carbon technologies – such as hybrids, electric vehicles (EVs), range-extended EVs, fuel cells – surely render the low carbon vehicle an immature product, in that while we may know what it is, the way in which it does it will, in some cases, be new. Low carbon vehicles may require new knowledges, new behaviours, new strategies, and also produce new experiences which, together, might impact upon how we consume the car.

As the adoption of low carbon vehicles is being left to the market and to the vagaries of consumer choice (with, admittedly, the odd governmental nudge), it is pertinent to ask whether the ways in which we use and regard the car today – our existing automobilities – can aspire to a future low carbon automobility, to find out whether irrationalities of the way in which we consume the car – our automotive peccadilloes, if you like – can be reconciled with the rationality that the environmental imperative demands. How do we consume the car? How will we reach a low carbon automobility? Do we even want to? Will we enjoy it when we get there?

To answer the question in the title of this post (which is also the working pre-title of my PhD study), we need to ascertain where ‘here’ is. I would say that ‘here’ is the latest automotive propulsion technology, whether this technology is electric, hybrid or an internal combustion engine with the low-carbon fixes and fuels, and the associated (im)practicalities of these technologies; ‘here’ is the comparatively high cost of this low carbon technology, which may well decrease over time; ‘here’ is what we know about the environmental impact of motoring and what we are prepared to do (and to pay) to mitigate and/or ameliorate it; and ‘here’ is the contemporary socio-cultural consumption of the car.

As mentioned earlier, the first definition of ‘here’ has been well documented by both academia and the technical media, as battery improvement continues apace, fuel cells are continually developed, and the internal combustion engine is constantly refined and made cleaner. In addition, the second and third definitions of ‘here’ have also been subject to a wider discourse. However, the final definition of ‘here’ is just as important, as it is through the social, cultural and experiential aspects of the car that we can begin to appraise a holistic consumption of the car. By framing the socio-cultural consumption of the car within an environmental context, and also within a technological context, it may be possible to reconcile the irrationality of car consumption with the rationality demanded by the environmental imperative, and so provide a new perspective upon the appetite and potential for low carbon automobility.

In 1957, French philosopher Roland Barthes made what now appears to be an extremely prescient observation, when he suggested that the Citroën DS may mark a change in the ‘mythology’ of cars, noting that “until now, the ultimate of cars belonged to the bestiary of power; here it becomes at once more spiritual and object-like”. The power race practised more recently by, for example, some of the German marques, together with a mindset fomented by certain TV programmes, suggests that this mythological change hasn’t been universally adopted. That said, an environmental imperative fostered by the threat of climate change suggests that a change in our automotive perceptions may be overdue. Might an environmental awareness acquire such a status within automobility that supplants the ‘bestiary of power’ of which Barthes writes?

Any changes in the way we consume the car may provide an appropriate answer. As a result of my PhD, I hope to have answers to some of the above questions in due course.

A version of this article previously appeared on the Cartechnical website, the link to which is here.