Carbon neutral cars

How far are we from carbon neutral cars?
29 January 2019

Interview with 

Richard Black, Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit


Car exhaust pipes


If you’ve got a car, chances are it runs on a fossil fuel, like petrol or diesel. And worldwide, cars are a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. So how far are we from a carbon neutral car? And are greener alternatives practical and affordable? Katie Haylor spoke to Richard Black, who directs the London-based think tank the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. First up, Katie asked, how are the current cars most of us use actually impacting the environment?

Richard - Yeah you’ve got two separate issues really with cars. One is air pollution and the other is climate change. So on the air pollution side in the UK it's estimated that air pollution causes about 40,000 premature deaths each year. But really that's only part of the impact because there were studies coming out last year for example showing that particulates part of the air pollution can actually go across the placenta from a pregnant woman to the baby for example. There are also studies showing impacts on dementia so there's a health impact apart from those premature deaths caused, so that's air pollution that's nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter tiny particles of soot essentially. On the climate change side, transport is responsible for just over a quarter of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, it's actually the biggest sector now and it's the only sector where emissions are not falling. So there's a big issue there.

Katie - So what are the alternatives then, if you want a car and you don't want a petrol or diesel?

Richard - And you don’t want a bicycle which is my favourite means of transport. Making up for those cakes that we've all been eating over the last few weeks! If you'd asked this question 10 years ago there were really three separate technologies in the running, you had biofuels, electric and hydrogen and I think there's no doubt that electrics are winning. That's where manufacturers are putting their resources, most manufacturers anyway. There are now something like three million electric cars on the road worldwide. In the UK less than 1 percent of the overall car fleet are electric or hydrogen but that's increasing. So last year about one in 30 cars bought in the UK was a plug in model so it's either pure electric or a plug in hybrid.

Katie - Are they affordable? How much does it cost?

Richard - So last year did a little study on this and they compared the lifetime cost so that's buying plus running of an electric, petrol and a diesel and they considered on that basis electric cars are already cost competitive because yes it costs more to buy, but actually you're running costs are lower because you fuel costs are slower and your maintenance costs are much lower. Deloitte had a survey out just last week suggesting that even on purchase price alone we can expect them to be cost competitive within two or three years.

Katie - OK so ballpark figure if you were to buy an electric car now, how much would you be shelling out?

Richard - It entirely depends what model you want to buy. I mean you've got your Teslas which are you know many tens of thousands, but it's equally worth pointing out that What Car’s Car of the Year award last week went to an economy model it's the Kia e-Nero which is a small car. One of the other issues that they addressed in their award is the range - that electric cars don't go on forever. They reckon that the Kia e-Nero range is more than 250 miles.

Katie - So our electric cars actually greener? Can we decide where we get the electricity from to put in the car?

Richard - So there have been a number of studies on this and really you've got to take it from cradle to grave from manufacturer through running to disposal. There was a study on this that came out last year for example from the European Climate Foundation, which looked in different European countries and asked the question now is it greener than a petrol diesel model? And the answer in every case was yes. Now it depends where you are. So in France for example virtually all of the electricity is low carbon, it's nuclear or renewable. So if you drive a car in France and you drive the same car in the UK, it's going to be greener in France than in the UK but in the UK we're already getting more than half of our electricity from zero carbon sources. Renewables are nuclear put together. So the situation is that all the studies show that it's going to get better because as electricity gets greener obviously the greenness of your driving - and also the manufacturers are starting to get greener with things so more and more steel for example is being recycled. So you're reducing emissions from that for example.

Katie - So are there any hurdles then to get zero emissions cars on the roads?

Richard - I think one of them is just what are people used to, you know? If you've always bought a petrol car that's probably what you're going to do. Range is still an issue if you're in rural areas or if you're an area it doesn't have very many charging stations. So up and down the UK there are something like 200,000 electric cars on the road now but only about a tenth as many charging stations. So depending on where you are - I mean you'll have one at home as well but you know depending on what your habits are. So that's an issue and I think there's no massive supply side constraints. There obviously will be a finite supply of some of the materials like lithium that used in batteries but then again the mining industry always explores more when demand increases. And also there are alternative ways of making batteries that are coming on so you can't see immediate constraints from that point of view.

Katie - Just going back to the point you're making about range. There is this concept of range anxiety, isn’t there? People being really worried - am I actually going to be able to get to the next junction on the motorway?

Richard - Yes that's right. But the range is increasing all the time. And of course you know I've been in a car and I've run out of petrol so it's not something that's unique to electric cars. Katie - What about safety, because electric cars can be super quiet which is lovely on the one hand, but can it be a bit of a safety issue?

Richard - I had a personal one with this about a month or six weeks ago when I didn't look, stepped out into the lane just in the bus station near where I live, and nearly got taken out by an electric taxi. I just hadn’t looked. So in one sense it's my own fault right? But there is an issue here. This has been flagged up in the US as well. Experts estimate that you are statistically more likely, particularly your sight impaired or something like this, to have a risk of collision from an electric vehicle. But the European Commission is on top of this in Europe. So within two years basically all electric cars are going to have to have some sort of alarm fitted which is going to have to work particularly when you're at low speeds. When you think about it, it is actually an opportunity to do something quite good because petrol or diesel cars you’re left with whatever noise they produce. With an electric car you can think about what sort of noise is actually going to be the best one to use. So can you for example have a noise that tells you more accurately which direction the vehicle is coming from.


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