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Why one step forward for greener transport is proving to be two steps back

As governments are scrambling to implement new ways of powering cars, we have to look at the overall impact of these changes and if they really are as effective as we would hope. Electric vehicles (EVs) and biofuels seem like planet-savers in theory, but after they have been put into practice environmental groups and independent traffic analysts like the UK’s Transport Watch are raising red flags. After they have studied the overall CO2 emissions of creating and powering electric vehicles, as well as the sustainability of biofuels, it seems that governments still have a lot of work to do in creating sustainable energy sources.

Paul Withrington of Transport Watch spoke about the UK government subsidising electric cars to motivate people to go this route: “The government should re-examine their assumptions and should not encourage this until they have decarbonised the generating industry. At the moment, it is nuts. If you bought an electric car now you would be looking at generating the same amount of carbon or more.”

The electric car itself is an excellent idea, but only if you are charging the batteries from a power source that is not responsible for releasing carbon gasses.

According to GM, as reported by CNN Money, the GM Volt (their electric car model) will cost “less than purchasing a cup of your favourite coffee” to recharge. This sounds amazing, I must admit, as fuel prices seem to increase every second week. This depends on the cost of electricity where you live, of course. In some cases it might not be more economical to drive an electric car and even if it is, you cannot feel better about your carbon footprint.  Withrington said that if China were to replace all their diesel powered transport with electric vehicles, they would double their existing carbon emissions from coal fired power stations which is their primary source of electricity.

The concern is that only a quarter of the energy that was initially created in a fossil fuel power station reaches the electric car as a lot of energy “leaks” along the supply chain and that most of the energy we use comes from these carbon-releasing power plants. There have been plans to have batteries from electric cars feed electricity back into the electric grid, as they can charge if the car is fitted with a regenerative braking system. This system would only be effective for cars that drive in traffic and have to stop and start a lot. In fact, EVs are not effective for long distances at all as they have to be charged for a few hours before they are able to drive again.

All of this points to the fact that we still have to find a sustainable, carbon-free power source to replace the use of fossil fuels.

And what about biofuels? Adding plant-based fuel to the fossil fuel supply seems like a good idea, but research and practice is showing that this is also not the answer. At least according to the environmental group Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins, who says: “Until ministers can do their sums properly and prove that growing crops for fuel actually cuts carbon, the Government should stop biofuels being added to UK petrol and diesel. Trying to cut emissions by adding biofuels to petrol is like trying to cut down on beer by lacing your pints with vodka.”

The Renewable Energy Association (REA) represents renewable energy producers and promotes the use of all forms of renewable energy in the UK. Their spokesperson, Clare Wenner, said: “We really have been able to demonstrate that UK biofuels can make the grade on carbon savings and being produced sustainably”. The catch is that the UK relies heavily on imports and the sources of these biofuels are often cited as “unknown” so there is no way of knowing if they are sustainable. The UK government is being blamed for not properly researching the sources and the true efficacy of using biofuels.

Until a sustainable electricity source is implemented, the only answer is to use engine technology to create cars that are smaller, lighter and that use less fuel. Finding ways of making public transport more alluring and accessible is also a step in the right direction.

Withrington’s research is available at

(This is a post by our new intern Elizabeth Smit)

(Image by Department for Communities and Local Government [Open Government Licence v1.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

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