Why is it so hard to have a rational conversation about green transport?
We’ve just had the warmest October on record. That’s a fact. Lots of talk and some action about climate change is going on. But so much of it is, frankly, a bit silly.
On the one hand you have hardline climate change deniers. Most people accept now that the science shows climate change is happening. You can go see disappearing glaciers and icecaps for yourself. The current argument is about why climate change is happening and what we can (or should) do about it. Some of these folks will never be convinced. You can’t reason with emotion as the saying goes. Studies show hardcore deniers have a cluster of common dysfunctional personaility traits and often subscribe to other irrational beliefs (conspiracy theories, are anti-vaccination etc.)
Equally, extreme climate change activists beliefs, if carefully examined can also be irrational, impractical or inconsistent. There is for example some correlation with unscientific New Age thinking amongst some extreme climate change activists.
So, where does that leave the rest of us? There are many positive and practical steps we can take. Anyone individual personal decision to make a change might not make much difference in isolation but if enough personal positive decisions are made, they just might then make a difference. After all, there are 7.7 billion of us on the planet, as of this year.
One big personal decision we can take is about making changes to how we think about transport. Some extreme climate change activists say we should all only travel on public transport. That sounds great in theory but just isn’t practical for many and would cripple the economy if introduced before the right infrastructure is in place. Right now, outside of big cities, public transport can be quite limited. What’s more, in many parts of the world, some public transport still uses fossil fuel. So that’s a clear example of impractical and inconsistent thinking.
Back to the fifties
So, what about changing our thinking about cars? Many people love the chrome-plated gas-guzzling US cars of the 1950s and 60s’. They were stylish, fun and hugely inefficient. Pink Cadillacs, Red Corvettes, T-Birds that daddy took away.
That was less of an issue back in the early 1950s when the world population was a bit over 2.5 billion – roughly a third of the population today.
As environmental concerns grew in the 1970s, cars and other personal transport powered by fossil fuels, got a lot more fuel-efficient and a lot cleaner, at least in developed economies.
Today fossil fuel cars are very much more efficient, and it’s not clear how much potential there still is to improve petrol or diesel technology cars much further in any meaningful way. Yes, you could make people drive petrol or diesel cars more slowly by lowering the speed limit. That would be practical but highly unpopular. You could force petrol and diesel car manufacturers by legislation, to cut weight and engine size. Or you could limit people’s ownership to say one car per family. OK now let’s get real. Any politician care to try running on those as a platform today? Good luck.
The long term solutions to climate change all come with a price. We could have a lot less children. We could stop doing things we love, like vacations involving air travel. We could stop poor nations industrialising. How are those sounding to you?
So, what else can we do?
Well, I guess you are thinking ‘what about electric cars?’. Well, yes that’s an obvious answer, except it isn’t that straightforward. A lot of people agree that electric cars are the way forward and manufacturers are making big investments on rolling out models right now.
- They honestly don’t yet have the long-range a lot of journeys can need. So, unless you are planning to sit at a lot of Starbucks with charging points, or check into a hotel or motel overnight, petrol or diesel cars still beat electric hands down for long-distance journeys and the time it takes to refuel vs. recharging a battery. Eventually, we’ll get better batteries, faster charging etc. but we’re talking about right now.
- Electric cars, like fossil fuel cars, still create a big carbon footprint to manufacture and get to the buyer. Electric batteries involve some pretty nasty stuff in their manufacture too. So, if you junk your current petrol and diesel car and replace it with a new electric one, there are some downsides.
- Electric car batteries are developing fast but right now they are still heavy and the more mass you have, the less efficient your car is. Electric batteries also wear out and need replacing.
- Electric cars are only truly clean if the electricity they use is generated by solar, wind, hydroelectric etc. Arguing for Gas, Coal or Nuclear Fission energy powering an electric car is a bit of a strange position to take.
None of that matters to extreme climate change activists. Electric cars can be a ‘virtue signalling’ badge.
Hybrid cars like the Prius have especially come under attack as ‘virtue signalling’ rather than a practical solution. When they are running on electricity, of course, they have benefits, however, they (and cars like them) do use a lot of nickel, which needs digging out the ground and much heavier than many think (due to their batteries). So, when you do switch to electric, that extra battery weight reduces performance and drains the battery or impacts fuel consumption.
None of those objections means people won’t buy electric cars. In fact, people are buying more now than ever before.
The crucial point is whether you are adding an electric car, or are you replacing a fossil fuel one? It is OK if you have access to both fuel types, but not so good if you only have electric and suddenly you need to go on long journeys.
But, there are alternatives to trading in your V6 Mustang. Why not keep it and buy an electric bike as well
One practical option to reduce your carbon footprint (and maybe save a lot of money too) is to keep your car but also get an electric bike as a complementary way of travelling.
Note we just said ‘complementary’. We’re not arguing as some might, that electric bikes are the answer to all your transport needs. They are not. If you are off to the local lumberyard, we don’t suggest you carry lengths of timber on an electric bike. Although in some countries some people do just that on Honda Supercubs (dogs and even pigs as well – really). Nor is it much fun on a bike late at night in the pouring rain, or on icy roads.
What we are saying is that some kinds of journeys are fine for electric bikes and they can make more sense than making the journey in a car.
- If charged by renewable energy sources, they are very ‘green’ indeed.
- Unlike conventional bikes, they can move you more quickly over bigger distances without you turning up covered in sweat and tired out.
- They are way cheaper to buy and run than an electric car.
- You can use them for the ‘final mile’ of a public transport commute (many electric bikes fold for that purpose).
- You don’t need a garage or a parking space, either at home or where you work. This is a big plus for the city dweller.
- You don’t have to pay for parking tariffs, congestion charges etc.
So, if you are looking at shorter journeys, the weather is OK and you don’t need to take a Great Dane to the vet, an electric bike might just fit the bill. Remember, you still have a normal car too.
Sensible Personal Green Transport
Faced with irrationality on both sides of the argument, we need to trust our own reason.
You can dip your toe into greener transport, without the level of cost and current downsides, swapping a petrol or diesel car for an electric car means. For many people, electric cars just aren’t practical yet, unless they totally change lifestyle..
Before you do that, maybe just make a step forward with an electric bike. And, you might just save money in the process.