I’ve posted some fairly upbeat posts about tackling climate change recently – but there was a less than optimistic message about the latest climate change science from Dr Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change to this year’s big low carbon vehicle event and conference held at London’s City Hall.
Here’s what came out of it…
Health warning: this was based on my notes – plus the issues are highly technical, and many of them are moving so fast that it’s difficult to for anyone to provide a settled overview.
The context is scary…very scary
Dr Kevin Anderson, Research Director for the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research presented on the latest climate change science.
It’s looking very unlikely we will manage to reign in GHG emissions to prevent dangerous climate change of 2 degrees. The science says we will have to make monumental efforts to rapidly reduce GHG if we are to avoid far worse than that including the serious risk of runaway climate change scenarios based on a series of possible tipping points and feedback loops (including the land mass becoming a carbon source rather than a carbon sink)
GHG emissions are still rising. The time for action on a scale we have never achieved so far is now.
We need to stop thinking about long term targets and start acting now – as given that carbon hangs around for 100 years it is cumulative amounts that matter – not what we may do in the year 2049.
You want more challenges? By 2050 the population of the world is forecast to be 9 billion (up from 6.7 billion today) and the number of light duty vehicles is expected to triple.
Is the Government providing enough leadership
According to the poll of LCVP members – not enough.
According to the car and oil industry – yes. Government is setting a clear direction and the car industry is only heading in one direction now – which is lower carbon.
But…there’s a view from the car and oil industry that regulation and target setting needs to go global. There are too many different targets and standards for car emissions in different parts of the world.
General feeling was perhaps that yes the Gov was showing leadership – but not enough given the scale of the challenge. This is not a problem that can be solved by consumers exercising moral fibre and informed choices alone.
Car industry – dinosaurs or innovative thinkers?
Well…the overall view from the industry appeared to be that they will keep pushing the boundaries on these new fangled technologies and options but incremental improvements to petrol and diesel power would inevitably be the main focus for the short to medium term. And the EU targets for car emissions (that they helped water down) were very tough and challenging.
However, the sudden demise of the reactionary US car industry and its partial take over by Obama is a sign of paradigm shift.
Toyota rep also suggested that the future was e-transport and that the current model of car ownership could fragment into car clubs, leasing, rental and smartcard access to different travel options.
So where are we going on low, and ultra low carbon vehicles
Unfortunately it’s too early to know what the winning technologies and fuels are…and there’s no ‘silver bullet’. At the conference were exponents of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and Shell made a strong case for advanced high tech bio-fuels. However, plug-in cars have emerged as the option that everybody wants to talk about.
Bring on the plug-in cars?
The technologies are coming on leaps and bounds (outside were electric, fuel cell and hybrid cars and vans that had just completed a London to Brighton demonstrator run). An electric four seater Mitsubishi car will be available for purchase in November – there was also an e-Mini which is currently being trialled by BMW. Many of these vehicles now have a range of 80 to 100 miles and look and increasingly perform like regular cars.
They may not be competitively priced though – either for the vehicle or fuel. Ford rep reckoned it would be another decade before they were.
And they need the infrastructure (ie the charge points). Denmark and Israel are racing away on this but Boris Johnson told the conference that he wants London in the mix and will be aiming to have the infrastructure in place for 100,000 electric cars in 2015. Though will there be the affordable vehicles to take advantage of that infrastructure (see above)?
Then there’s the batteries. Hard to tell from the claim and counter claim at the conference (plus it’s a technical area in which I’m not at expert) but there are further issues relating to weight and charging. You will never be able to charge them up rapidly – so garages where you can change the used-up battery for a charged-up one (rather than have the car out of action for hours while the used-up battery is re-charged) might also be needed.
One of the car industry reps says that battery cars are where mobile phones and laptops were a decade ago – in other words before they became light, reliable and convenient.
And of course if the electricity that feeds the plug-in cars was generated in a dirty, carbon-intensive way then the carbon gains from plug-in cars are significantly reduced.
The attraction of plug-in cars to politicians appeared to me to be that it doesn’t involve tough, complex and often unpopular policies like LEZs or road user charging – you can tell people they get to keep their cars and the culture that goes with it – but now it’s green. Plus plug in cars are just that little bit over the horizon – so no immediate political downsides or tricky practical issues to be dealt with now.
All of which helps explain why electric cars are so hot right now for Politicians in the US and round the World. This includes our own Lord Adonis who majored on plug-ins in his speech to the conference (though unless I’m missing something there’s no clarity on how precisely we get from DfT support for the concept to a worked through plan for achieving it on the ground)
I may well be wrong on this but is there a danger that by going for an over the horizon technology is a displacement activity for getting on with mass conventional hybrid introduction??? Or will we end up with plug-in hybrids as the intermediate stage (the third generation Prius will be a plug in Hybrid)???
And finally on electric cars – there was a film out a few years back called ‘Who killed the electric car?’ A docco about how the electric car was sabotaged by the industry. Now the makers of that film are making a new film about the return of the electric car.
What about buses?
Buses hardly got a mention at the conference – which underlines what we’ve heard elsewhere which is that the Gov and industry focus will be car and light vans. Because of their volume and because they are easy to decarbonise (because they are lighter)
Not good news for the environmental credentials of the bus (already the largest source of NOX emissions in many town centres and when its carbon advantages are not as significant as perhaps many might think).
However, there was some interesting stuff on how some cities are forging ahead on bio-gas powered vehicles from municipal waste. Lille and Graz for example have been powering their entire bus fleet with gas from municipal waste for years. I’m not sure why other than for regulatory reasons – why we couldn’t have a similar pilot here.
Indeed one speaker argued that municipal authorities are the right unit of Government for piloting significant low carbon vehicle fleets – as the nation-state can be too large but a city that knows where it’s going can give the market and innovators the confidence to invest.