Last week in New York the sculptor Seth Kinmont unveiled the first of three electric cars, bodywork made from wood. For three days he invited people to ride around the block in his new hand-built horseless carriage. Beautiful, huh?
I mention this because a) it forms a tenuous artistic link to the following story, and b) Kinmont’s work underlines the quixotic nature of electric transport.
The latest voyagers on this quixotic journey are Jeff Hoon and Peter Mandelson. Today they will announce a £250m scheme to kickstart the UK’s electric car infrastructure. You might think they’re unlikely travellers on this road, given the fact that this are the pair who were most vocal about the impracticality the green movement’s objections to Heathrow expansion.
But no, Geoff Hoon in particular has retooled himself as the champion of green in this morning’s Guardian.
Hoon said yesterday that decarbonising road transport had a big role in helping the UK meet its targets of reducing CO2 emissions by 26% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. “Something like 35% of all our carbon emissions are caused by domestic transport,” he said. “Of that, 58% of the emissions are caused by motor cars.”
The implication is that electric cars will help cut that figure. And they might, but… Big but.
As a recent report commissioned by the Campaign for Better Transport suggests, if everyone in the UK moved to electric cars we’d need four times as much capacity in our electricty generation than we have at present, and even the government’s recently unveiled plans for nuclear generation aren’t enough to plug that gap.
Even a modest rise in electric car use doesn’t automatically reduce CO2 emissions – it just shifts emissions from the exhaust pipe to the power station. For those who use their cars only for short urban journeys, the CO2 reduction can be significant, but for average car use the figures are much less clear cut.
A few weeks ago the government let it be known that they were considering a scheme to encourage people to buy greener cars by offering an incentive for people to scrap their old ones. In reality, this was an attempt to boost the UK’s failing manufacturing sector, not a green scheme; given the embedded carbon costs of manufacturing, scrapping working cars in favour of newly built ones is about the least green strategy of all. That embedded energy calculation is the same for electric cars too.
This initiative is the start of Gordon Brown’s much touted green recovery plan; for a cabinet who have dismissed green concerns as impractical, they’re going to have to work extremly hard to demonstrate that this really is a practical scheme, not just another sop to industry.
Hat tip to Bad At Sports for the Seth Kinmont story.