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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.