Electric cars won’t break our fossil fuel dependency

The future. Image: Getty.

The gulf between what scientists say is needed to save the planet and what governments actually agree keeps growing. International climate talks held last month in Katowice, Poland, were no exception.

At the summit, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait joined forces to water down recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, Australia celebrated coal, Brazil pushed to weaken rules on carbon markets. 

It’s no surprise that an increasing number of people think that tackling global warming cannot be left to national governments alone. Some have begun looking to local government and community initiatives. Others resort to direct action against the perceived treachery of political elites.

Knowledge of the past is a powerful weapon for those hoping to shape the planet’s future. Cutting fossil fuel consumption requires an understanding of its relentless expansion since the mid-20th century.

We can start with the technological systems and infrastructures that consume fossil fuels; cars, electricity, heating and buildings. Moving away from fossil fuels will require transforming these infrastructures and the social and economic systems in which we live.

Take cars, for example. Technological change helped catapult them to prominence: together with steam turbines and electricity networks, the internal combustion engine was one of the great innovations of the second industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century.

But it took social and economic change to make cars the predominant mode of urban transport. In the 1920s, US car manufacturers pioneered automated assembly lines, transforming cars from luxury items to mass consumer products. Manufacturers used political muscle to side-line and sabotage competing forms of transport, including sidecars, buses and railways.

Car use exploded during America’s post-war boom thanks to huge state investment in highways. Suburbia proliferated and spread internationally, as some other rich countries embraced this pattern of urban development.

But by the 1980s, the car boom had become a traffic jam. At home in the US, manufacturers mounted effective resistance to the state’s sporadic attempts at regulating fuel efficiency, and gas-guzzling SUVs arrived.


Today, those working to create carbon-free cities are confronted with the economic and social structures that have normalised car use.

The current fixation with electric and driverless cars is an example of spurious technological fixes obscuring the reality that moving away from fossil fuels requires systemic social and economic change.

Using electric cars probably won’t cut carbon emissions much – or at all – unless electricity is generated entirely from renewables. And while countries like Germany and Spain have taken important steps to raise the proportion of renewable electricity, the hard part is yet to come: creating systems that rely mostly, or entirely, on renewable electricity.

Cities must become places where transport systems don’t depend on cars. While trams, walkways and bicycle-friendly infrastructures can help towards this end, the central function of electric cars is preserving manufacturer’s profits.

As with cars, so with urban electricity, heating systems, and built environments: technological change to reduce fossil fuel use must go hand in hand with broader social and economic change.

Like cars, electricity systems were a great innovation of the late nineteenth century.

Their first phase of development culminated in the post-war boom and depended on large, centralised power stations that were usually coal-fired.

Since the 1980s, a third industrial revolution that produced networked computers and internet enabled devices has made it possible to supersede the centralised networks that relied on fossil fuels. Now we have the potential for integrated, decentralised systems reliant on multiple energy sources – including renewables like solar and heat pumps, and wind turbines.

Yet this “smart grid” technology has scarcely been applied, despite three decades passing since the effects of global warming were first discovered. Why?

One explanation is that networks are operated by companies whose business model relies on selling as much electricity as possible. These companies are scared by the possibility of distributed generation systems, where networks collect electricity from multiple renewable sources. And community-based decentralised electricity ventures are forced to compete with these established corporations on unequal terms.

A briefing paper published last year by researchers at Imperial College, London, argued that moving the UK’s electricity and heat systems away from fossil fuels would require a “whole system approach” coordinated by “one single party”.

This implies that the dogmas of competition, which have favoured corporate providers rather than public sector responses, are obstructing the technologies needed to tackle global warming.

This is not a new problem. In 1976, following the oil price shock, sustainable energy advocate Amory Lovins spoke in the US Congress about “soft energy paths” that would combine a culture of energy efficiency and a transition to renewables.

He pointed to the “roads not taken” by governments, who were more inclined to defend incumbent corporate interests than use energy technologies wisely.

Forty years on, despite the threat of global warming, these issues still loom large. Social change, powerful enough to remove the obstructions to the transition from fossil fuels, is more urgent than ever.

Simon Pirani is author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto Press, 2018) and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.