Monday, March 29, 2010

The Emperor's New Car: why electric cars won't solve energy issues

“In 21st century consumer culture, even ostensibly useful items like running shoes and cars are frequently replaced, not because they are worn out, but because they no longer produce sufficient gratification in the form of status or novelty.” [The Emperor's New Car]

A car buyer’s guide is not where I expected to find the most penetrating analysis of western consumer culture I’ve read in a long time, but that is exactly what The Dog and Lemon Guide’s editor Clive Matthew-Wilson has provided in the brilliant “The Emperor’s New Car”. The Emperor’s New Car is ostensibly a critique of the economic and environmental value of electric cars but in order to make his points Matthew-Wilson has poured question upon question until he gets to the root of the problem: it is our materialistic lifestyle that is killing the planet not the use of petrol-fuelled cars.

Matthew-Wilson begins by comparing the advantages and disadvantages of electric cars. On the positives, they improve air quality, reduce traffic noise, reduce reliance on oil from politically volatile countries, reduce emissions (but only if using electricity from renewable sources) and may be more fuel efficient. These advantages are balanced by the negatives: most electricity is produced from highly damaging fossil fuels, electric cars are still less efficient than mass public transit, there is a serious shortage of accessible energy, private cars are an unsustainable transport model, and they are being financed with taxpayers’ money as a bailout of car companies.

The world’s shortage of oil, says Matthew-Wilson, can be best understood as an energy shortage. This is exacerbated by energy wastage and resulting pollution. The West’s energy lifestyle relies on the East staying poor and undeveloped. 25 percent of the world uses 85 percent of its resources. The world simply does not have the resources, renewable or otherwise, to sustain lavish lifestyles in the west let alone across the globe.

Car ownership is embedded in western culture and with it an illusory sense of freedom. But the private electric car cannot solve the US energy and pollution problem because the private car is not the biggest waster of energy in America. That honour goes to homes mostly poorly designed and poorly insulated, far from services and now full of gadgets that are an energy sink. Worldwide the demand from gadgets will require building the equivalent of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants and while experts are promoting mandatory efficiency rules no one is advocating restraint in purchases of consumer electronics.

Shipping is also major problem. As few as 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world. These ships carry consumer goods providing temporary gratification. The nub of the problem therefore, says the report is not so much the car by itself, but a package deal of wasteful cars, wasteful suburbs based around cars, together with a wasteful society based around consumption, with the car as the most obvious symbol of this waste. “Changing the way that American cars are powered will not solve the built-in problems of the American system of over-consumption.”

Globally the problem of materialism is compounded by energy wastage. China’s growth and demand for energy soon outstrip any environmental gains made within the West. The West’s addiction to consumption has fed the uncontrolled Chinese boom with its poor safety record. China's vast underground coal fires make an enormous, hidden contribution to global warming annually releasing 360 million tons of carbon dioxide as much as all the cars and light trucks in the US.

The report also side-tracks into such unexpected places as the dangers of WalMart car parks, the US diet and excess consumption. The conclusion is straight-forward and likely to be unpalatable to many: the only way a society hooked on excess energy consumption can solve the problem of excess energy consumption is to reduce its energy consumption to a sustainable level. The problem with the electric car movement, said Matthew-Wilson, is that it is based around the falsehood that it is possible to continue the American car-based lifestyle of the twentieth century by changing the form of energy used to power it. Read the report and act; it is a clear-eyed and compelling prescription for societal change.

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