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The myth of green cars

Cars have long dominated our cities and polluted our air. But are electric versions anything more than environmental window-dressing? 

The car, wrote the French thinker André Gorz, “supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else”. Writing in 1973, Gorz was frustrated by a paradox: cars had once been a luxury, invented to provide the wealthy with the unprecedented privilege of travelling much faster than everyone else. But they later became a necessity – objects considered so vital that people were willing to take on debt to acquire them. “This practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation,” Gorz observed. Cars are still treated as a “sacred cow” – rather than an antisocial product.

Have cars made people happier? As a commuter (one who admittedly can’t drive), I’d argue not. They are an emblem of individualism, represented by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s embrace of private car ownership (in 1986, she cut the ribbon on the final stretch of the M25). Whether speeding along cycle paths or seated on a bus, journeying to work in London and many other cities is often slowed – and imperilled – by steel boxes regularly carrying only a single individual. They occupy scarce public space and emit noxious fumes. 

More than anything, cars seem increasingly inappropriate in a world endangered by climate change. Electric cars are often cited as a green solution to the twin problems of air pollution and fossil fuel consumption. The Labour Party has become the most recent advocate of electric cars; shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey this week proposed £60bn of interest-free loans for drivers of such vehicles as part of the party’s “green industrial revolution”. But the benefits of trading in old cars for electric versions are elusive. Making new cars is a dirty business – and designing cities around the existence of the car an antisocial practice.

For Labour, the appeal of the policy is clear. Though conference delegates voted to adopt a Green New Deal, a radical environmental programme of investment and green jobs creation, the wrangling that preceded this move exposed tensions. A version of the plan committing the party to decarbonisation by 2030 was popular with grassroots activists but proved a sticking point among trade union officials, who initially resisted during weekend discussions. Committing to electric vehicles squares the circle between an old guard of labour unions that have traditionally regarded environmental policy as a threat to industrial jobs, and the necessity of confronting climate breakdown. 

The history of the car’s predominance is one of oil magnates and industry lobbying that begins in the United States. Until the 1920s, urban transport had been dominated by public transit systems of street cars. Spotting an opportunity, the motor industry sought to replace these with private cars and motored buses. As the environmental researcher Simon Pirani recounts in his book Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Companies, companies conspired to eviscerate public transit. Together, a holding company founded by firms including General Motors and Standard Oil bought up – and subsequently shut down – 100 streetcar systems across 45 North American cities. “By the 1950s, public transport was in terminal decline, and by 1960 had almost disappeared,” Pirani writes.

Though cars are presented as the archetypal symbol of efficiency and convenience, their dominance wasn’t inevitable; it hinged on industry lobbying and political choice. In the US, the federal road building programme, which eclipsed the size of the 1948 Marshall Plan, paved over areas to make way for motorised vehicles. “A car-based city model spread across the rich world in the post-war boom,” Pirani tells me over the phone. “Now, we’ve completely normalised and internalised a car-based model,” he adds. But it could have been otherwise.

This helps explain why car companies themselves are so keen on electric vehicles: it allows corporations to appear as if they’re embracing environmental benefits, without altering their bottom line. And, theoretically at least, electric cars bring plenty of benefits. Though their silence can be deadly to unwitting cyclists, the vehicles don’t emit any carbon dioxide, methane or particulates associated with combustion engines. Moreover, if run on renewable energy, they can be less carbon intensive than petrol cars.

But there are two big problems with this account. The first is that electric cars still embody a great deal of carbon, scarce resources and materials that are used in the manufacturing process. In fact, making a new car can often create just as much carbon pollution as driving it. “Your car could be an old banger with a deeply inefficient engine, guzzling diesel, and it could still be better to keep using that car for the rest of your life than buying a new one,'' Phineas Harper, an architect and chief curator of the Oslo Triennale tells me. 

The second is that the UK still produces much of its electricity from fossil fuels, rather than renewable sources (only 9 per cent of the UK’s energy comes from renewable or waste sources, according to recent figures). “If you make your electricity from gas, and put the electricity into the car, you might win in terms of air pollution, but there’s no guarantee you’re winning in terms of carbon and greenhouse gases,'' Pirani says. Until the UK has fully decarbonised its energy sources, introducing electric cars is environmental window-dressing. 

Yet Gorz’s critique of cars also reflected their social effects. Journeying from air-conditioned cars to shopping centres and workplaces erases any opportunity for chance meetings or spontaneous encounters. Cars divide space around individuals rather than societies. “It cuts a person into slices… so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants,” Gorz wrote. The car, in other words, is synonymous with individualised consumption, where space is compartmentalised and life convenient. 

“The car enables a form of living that seems inherently incompatible with planetary limits. The very concept of a car is still something we should challenge, whatever it is made of,” Harper says. Indeed, all of the infrastructure required to sustain cars – from the concrete used to build car parks, to the tarmac poured on motorways – has negative environmental consequences. 

The apotheosis of this car-based reality is American suburbia, where it is almost impossible to travel anywhere without one’s own vehicle. The transport-related carbon emissions of Atlanta, Georgia, are eleven times the size of those of Barcelona, which has a comparable population and GDP per capita. The greatest distance between two points in Atlanta is 137km; in Barcelona, it’s 37km. 

“Are the people in Atlanta 11 times happier? We all know the answer to that,” Pirani jokes. 

Still, cars remain essential for rural dwellers – particularly because there are so few buses outside British cities. The French gilets jaunes protests over Emmanuel Macron’s botched introduction of a regressive carbon tax showed how environmental policies have polarising effects if they burden those without alternatives. Banning cars – electric or otherwise – is hardly an electoral vote-winner. 

Harper thinks a more environmental and equitable answer lies in investing in high-quality public transport rather than electrifying cars. “As someone born in the countryside, I’d still be asking for better train and bus routes before I asked for a loan to buy an electric car. There are lots of people who can’t drive; children, old people, disabled people – relying on cars doesn’t help any of them. It’s more complicated than that.”

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor.