The tipping point is coming: petrol engines are on the way out

Mmm, tasty. Image: Getty.

In a sentence I never thought I would write, Sadiq Khan just reminded me of Will Smith.

The mayor of London’s announcement today of the new T-Charge for older, dirtier car engines entering central London made me think of one scene from the otherwise largely average 2004 sci-fi film I, Robot.

In it, our protagonist, a misanthropic Chicago police officer played by Smith, turns up on a vintage motorbike. His co-star, Bridget Moynahan, reacts with horror at the sight – It is the year 2035 and all vehicles are now solely electric.

Just being in the presence of a petrol-powered means of transport dating from the early 21st-century fills Moynahan’s character with fear: she has become so used to electric propulsion that the idea of sitting astride a tank filled with a highly flammable liquid seems ridiculously dangerous.

This short moment has always stuck with me because it feels like the writers somehow got this spot on. Yes, we all know that, in reality, petrol engines are very safe. But it does feel inevitable that, however ubiquitous and normal they seem to us, future generations will look back with amazement that we spent over a century moving around by strapping ourselves to a tank full of a highly combustible fluid and then basically setting it on fire (readers with a better grasp of the workings of the internal combustion engine, feel free to write in).

Of course, the real reason fossil-fuelled transport will wither away is almost certainly not going to be because it’s dangerous to the user. In reality, it’s probably going to be a mixture of ratcheting up pressure to cut carbon emissions and the ever-decreasing cost of technologies like battery storage and fast-charging.

We’re clearly not there yet. While the number of alternative fuel cars, including electrics, sold in the UK hit has hit an all-time high, they still amount to only 4.2 per cent of all sales.

But at some point in the next 50 years (2035 feels a little ambitious, to be honest) there will be a tipping point. And I can easily believe that one or two generations after the shift to electric has set in, those who have grown-up in the post-petrol world will be so removed from the culture which made the petrol engine ubiquitous that the reasons we ever chose to drive them will feel impossibly remote.


What will truly baffle my grandchildren about our current transport technologies will not be that they could have been be dangerous to the user, but that they were unequivocally dangerous to everyone else. Just as those born in the 20th century and beyond grew up without questioning petrol engines, so we also accepted the emissions they churn out.

When you sit back and think about it, it is strange that we all just get along with the fact that our primary form of transport is only possible by spewing out provably noxious gases into the faces of those who live in our cities and towns. But for a few environmentalist cranks, for decade after decade we have mostly not even noticed the fact that petrol and diesel engines pollute our cities and poison our children.

Imagine a parallel universe where we had perfected the electric engine and battery storage in the early 20th century and fossil-fuel-free cars became the norm.

In this other world another version of Elon Musk announces he will pioneer a new form of propulsion. It will be more efficient than electric cars, allowing vehicles to travel hundreds more miles before they have to refuel. But it will also produce toxic fumes which will lead to thousands of premature deaths every year. Is that a proposition any city on earth would sign up for?

In recent years I have, without really noticing it, been shuffling towards that I, Robot inflection point myself. I grew up in central London and spent my life walking around this city breathing in everyone’s exhaust fumes without ever thinking about it. But today, as I cycle to and from work, I notice when the hatchback in front of me has a particularly wheezy exhaust. I instinctively try to avoid getting stuck behind a van belching out diesel smoke. I am alive to, and increasingly angered by, the way other people’s choice of personal transport poisons my city’s air.

In 1956 we decided we would no longer just accept London’s punishing smogs as a fact of life, as generations of Londoners had done for centuries, and legislated to stop companies and households from polluting the air.

It feels unfair, almost absurd even, that in 2017, sixty-one years later, we still allow drivers to pump out exhaust gases which contribute to 9400 premature deaths each year in the capital alone.

But things are changing. Sadiq Khan has made improving London’s air quality a central plank of his mayoralty, and has just effectively doubled the congestion charge for the most-polluting cars. High pollution levels now make the evening news. It’s common knowledge that London had breached its annual legal limit for toxic air by the 6 January.

Maybe this is wishful thinking, but it no longer feels unrealistic to think that this tipping point is coming. Hopefully, in the near future ordinary people, not tree-huggers or activists, will decide that breathing in filthy air is no longer a price worth paying for the privilege of burning petrol to get from A to B.

Almost everyone now thinks fossil-fuelled vehicles are on their way out. But I would not be surprised if public tolerance of the way they destroy our air quality actually drains away faster than Tesla and others can replace them. 

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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