Goodbye to Gasoline and Diesel. Hurrah!

Drove my Chevy to the levee. But the levee was dry. Words by Don Mclean.

Traffic lights and a long queue of cars with their rear lights on contrast with the dim murky background. Buffalo, Niagara.

The Passion and the Power

The age of the internal combustion engine vehicle is ending. It lasted more than 150 years with ICE vehicles driven by millions who knew little about pistons and crankshafts or the physics of combustion and air pollution. How to atone for all that pollution? Should the film industry recognise its legacy? It has been celebrating these vehicles since 1927 and shows no sign of waving goodbye and welcoming the new era any time soon. The internal combustion engine is more adored than ever by fans of films such as: Faster, Drive, Drive Angry 1 & 2, The Transporter and the Fast and Furious series. Mad Max: Fury Road features a war rig with two gas guzzling Chevy V8 engines. It thunders on at top speeds through a bone dry landscape chased by a fleet of even more absurd vehicles. You can almost smell the petrol. Or is it diesel? No wonder the landscape is devoid of life.

After Henry Ford set up the rolling assembly line in 1913 Hollywood’s passion for the ‘auto’ encouraged its widespread ownership. Today it is estimated that 91.3% of US households have access to ‘at least one motor vehicle’. Vehicle registration statistics reveal that this vast fleet of cars, vans, bikes and trucks increased each year up to 2019 and that 23% had gas thirsty 2.0 litre engines. Between 2012 and 2019 US registered vehicles increased from 247.8 million to 284.5 million. A rise of 36.7 million over only 7 years. Henry Ford would be proud! What an achievement! However during the same time period the US population rose by over 14 million. It is projected to pass 359 million by 2030, that will be around another 8 million persons. Now US average household size has declined to 2.53 persons. If that average remains the same around another 3.16 million households could own, lease or mortgage at least one motor vehicle by 2030. There could be another 20 million vehicles on US roads, a quarter of them turbo charged by 2.0 litre engines. CO₂ emissions will not decline to net zero by mid century to meet Paris Agreement targets if this scenario plays out. Gas thirsty SUVs produce on average 133 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilometre. Way above the recommended 50 grams per kilometre.

An old style grey single cab truck on scrub land with the low sun behind casting a long shadow.

Bye Bye Love

Not all is lost. Electric mobility is on the way and drivers can exchange their gas powered SUVs for BEVs: vehicles entirely powered by electric batteries! However US electric car use has languished behind Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands though California had an impressive 13.2 plug-in vehicles per thousand persons in 2018 compared to 3.4 per thousand in the US as a whole, way below Norway’s 55.9 per thousand. Tesla, an American electric car company, registered a mere 141,000 electric cars in 2018, 45% of them in California. By contrast the total number of U.S. registered vehicles in 2018 was 279.1 million of which only 8% were alternative fuel vehicles. Get the drift? The phasing out of the internal combustion engine vehicle has hardly begun. In 2020 UK sales of 100% BEVs increased to a mere 6.7% of all registered cars. If that pace of change continues the Norfolk Broads will burn!

Meanwhile, China with the ‘world’s largest vehicle market’ is planning to ‘phase out’ all public and private ICE vehicles by 2050. Precisely what ‘phase out’ means here is not clear. However, the process will involve building a network of charging stations across China as well as developing ‘battery technologies’ that will accelerate the change to NEVs: new energy vehicles. Other countries have announced plans to phase out sales of new ICEVs. The UK government will ban the sale of new ICEVs by 2030. France has declared there will be no sales of petrol and diesel vehicles after 2030, while the city of Paris will ban the internal combustion engine by 2030. Hurrah! Presumably this ban would include the sale of all used ICE vehicles drastically reducing the numbers of ICE motorbikes, taxis and delivery vans on the streets of Paris. There is 9 years to plan for this, to set up the infrastructure of charging stations and inform the public they will need to exchange their old jalopies for smart new sparkly BEVs. But eyes will not sparkle like they do in the movies if these changes are too little too late.

‘They paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.’ Words by Joni Mitchell

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) global sales of electric cars in 2019 reached 2.1 million, up 6% since 2018. But populations have been growing too! One estimation is that by 2030 the world’s population will have grown to 8.5 billion, an increase of 0.8 billion. How many more vehicles can the world sustain even if they are electric? Besides a growth in BEV sales is not the same as a decline in the use of and ownership of ICE vehicles and therefore fewer CO₂ emissions. In the UK the used car market is far larger than the new car market. It’s possible to lease a used ICE car for around £120 per month. Policies that prefer to ban new ICEVs rather than phrase out all existing ICEVs are unlikely to be sufficiently effective particularly where used cars are cultural icons and tourist attractions like the vintage Chevrolets and Fords in Cuba and Russia’s Lada.

2 Vintage  cars. 1 turquoise with white roof, other light green with white roof in sunlit centre of busy Havana, Cuba.
2 Vintage  cars. 1 turquoise with white roof, other light green with white roof in sunlit centre of busy Havana, Cuba.

Bovine Progress

When it comes to encouraging citizens to opt for BEVs and be CO₂ aware to ensure emissions are limited ruling politicians are more than bovine, especially in the UK where too many believe the best approach is to wait for market developments before making any statutory changes. To be fair the government has produced a white paper on energy: Powering Our Net Zero Future. It states: ‘the Electric Vehicle revolution is under way’. Turn the page and they admit: ‘the solution for larger, long haul, road freight vehicles is not yet clear’. Some revolution! Brought to you by the clowns who took away the mobility vehicles of the disabled.

One question that should have been considered in the report is: can the market deliver? Can it produce enough electric vehicles in time? And what about the production costs of materials like graphite, lithium, and cobalt for batteries? How sustainable are batteries in the long term? Will the costs increase when the workers organise? Or is Our net zero future one that does not include labour? The widespread assumption that a net zero economy is one without labour power is based on flawed presuppositions. Without labour to produce commodities and energy there is no net zero future. To avoid this scenario post-fossil economies require empowered workers and trade unions, especially when AI systems are introduced.

Right now time is running out and governments are not doing enough to expedite the phasing out of the ICEVs. Announcements about how quickly the global BEV markets are growing and reports praising market sales do not serve the interests of citizens seeking answers to mobility issues. It is time for governments and councils to take the lead rather than be market led lackeys. We shall see whether the Chinese approach to phasing out ICEVs is more effective than that of affluent economies where the market first approach is preferred. Countries like South Africa where fewer households access a car may adjust more easily to the net zero era. Oil producing countries may resist pressures to change.

Two tall chimneys pouring thick white smoke over a busy motorway. Blue grey colours. Called Time to Change.
Two tall chimneys pouring thick white smoke over a busy motorway. Blue grey colours. Called Time to Change.

And finally the film industry needs to wave goodbye to films that glamorise gas guzzling vehicles speeding faster and faster towards a crash. It needs to stop making movies as though greenhouse gases were not a problem. What planet are the producers inhabiting? Film workers could opt for films and shows that are climate friendly. In Tarkovsky’s film Stalker two men led by a guide abandon a rail car at the edge of an area called the zone. Though the zone is a polluted area it contains the possibility of something better. The film explores what this means. We too should explore what would be better than adding to carbon emissions and warming the planet.

Citizen, Voter, Reader. Critic of social exclusion practices and unequal justice.