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Electric cars — a major problem for all and a solution for only a few!

Electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in the parking lot of a train station in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo: Krisztian Bocsi / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

By Jeff Rudin  | Daily Maverick | 07 Mar 2023

One has indeed to be rich to afford the comfort of doing one’s bit for slowing down climate change. Were it not for neglected railway and underground systems, along with the worldwide chaos on public roads and the opportunism of presenting electric vehicles as ‘green’ and green as good, not many people would tolerate the shock therapy.

Some three-and-a-half years ago, Daily Maverick published an article I wrote titled, “Catastrophe capitalism jumps on the electric car bandwagon while South Africa sticks in the slow lane”.

It seems that, besides changes to South Africa’s position, nothing substantial has changed since then. The bandwagon continues to roll, with the general public being taken for a ride, despite the mounting evidence of both the inherent and temporary limitations of electric cars.

The South African government is now stationary in the slow lane; a position that has left the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa) aghast (see here and here).

Our government’s inaction doesn’t receive my applause, which might be contrary to expectations raised by my already indicated disquiet over the prevailing hype of electric vehicles. The reasons for this reticence will emerge in due course.

Naamsa has good cause for being stunned by the government’s stationary stance. Georgina Crouth in her Daily Maverick article, “Electric vehicles: SA motoring industry fights for relevance”, reports Naamsa’s eager anticipation in the build-up to last month’s National Budget speech.

The Budget speech was supposed to contain the long-awaited and crucial statement on New Energy Vehicles (NEVs) – (NEV being the South African terminology – rather than electric vehicles, EVs, because it allows for other clean energy sources such as green hydrogen.)

Naamsa’s expectations were rooted in:

In the event, the minister of finance gave short shrift to this matter. It merited no more than a single mention in his actual speech – the two words required to say “electric vehicles”. A separate document contains the minimalist budget allocation of R728.8-million for 2023-25.

And that was that as far as our government is concerned.

It simply ignored the fact that the European Union (EU), South Africa’s largest vehicle market, had recently approved the ban on all internal combustion engines (ICE) by 2035 (this, and what follows, are all from Georgina Crouth, unless otherwise indicated).

This EU ban alone means South Africa losing more than 50% of its intended vehicle production between 2025 to 2035. This is additional to the EU’s threatened carbon border adjustment tax on exports, including cars, produced by fossil fuels.

The US and China are similarly on the EV’s super-fast lane, with sales (including hybrid plug-in) expected to surge by 35% in China in 2023. This means nine million vehicles, which is almost a third of China’s new vehicle sales.

The enormity of the challenge for South Africa is underlined by EVs being only 0.88% of SA’s new vehicle sales in 2022. This is why, even before the disappointments of the finance minister’s Budget speech, Mikel Mabasa, Naamsa’s CEO, described our government’s response to the challenge as being “painfully slow”.

In recognition of this truth, the government – prior to the Budget speech – committed itself to NEV targets of 20% of the new vehicle market by 2025, 40% by 2030 and 60% by 2035.

Two immediate questions arise from the government’s about turn: what is Catastrophe Capitalism and why is it continuingly being spurned by our government alone?

Catastrophe Capitalism

Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, as further developed by Antony Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, provides the analytical framework for understanding the drive to EVs by the developed centres of global capitalism.

The proposition is that governments, acting in concert with business interests, use major disasters or ongoing crises to introduce emergency measures that in other circumstances would provoke strong resistance.

EVs are the “shock therapy” to the global economic crises of the past 25 years or so. Catastrophe capitalism capitalises on climate change to smuggle in the concerted and costly promotion of electric cars. EVs are the Second Industrial Revolution within transport.

The Great Recession, beginning in 2008 – marked by banks unwilling to lend even to the few investors willing to take risks – is the most egregious of these crises. Compounding these features are the pre-existing and concurrent duality of huge amounts of both non-productive capital and unused productive capacity. In a word: stagflation – economic stagnation along with inflation – which characterises the modern world.

The cash reserves of non-financial corporations in the US alone at the end of 2020 were over $5-trillion. In rand terms (at 18.15 to the US dollar), the R90.75-trillion means South Africa’s budget for 2023 is only 2.5% of US idle capital in 2022.

As a share of US gross domestic product, its cash surplus almost tripled between the early 1990s and the end of 2021. Idle capital in South Africa amounts to between R1.3-trillion to R1.4-trillion in 2022, ie more than half the country’s national budget in 2022.

Idle productive capacity is an economy’s capacity to produce (supply) expressed as a percentage of total demand (determined not by social need but expected sales). In the US, the number was 77.9% in January 2023, with the average being 79.6% between 1967 and 2023. South Africa’s numbers are 78.8% in the 3rd quarter 2022 and 81.5% between 1971 and 2022.

Going ‘green’

Going “green” in response to climate change – more especially by governments otherwise seen to be doing nothing – allows huge public resources to be spent promoting EVs at a time when governments around the world are busy pleading “austerity”.

With revenue in the global EV market projected to reach $457.6-billion in 2023, along with an annual growth rate of 17.02% producing a projected market volume of $858-billion by 2027, using “green” to help ailing economies is rational politics for governments having to manage their respective political economies (see here and here).

At no small cost (here and here), governments – led by Japan in 1998, and greatly expanded due to the Great Recession of 2008 – have used taxes and some 13 broad incentives to induce manufacturers to produce and people to purchase EVs, as detailedhere.

Were it not for the perception of saving the planet, would these handouts to manufacturers and the rich be accepted with such silence? The international pricing gap between EVs and petrol/diesel engine vehicles is 12% for hybrids, 43% for plug-in hybrids and 52% for battery-electric vehicles (BEVs).

One has indeed to be rich to afford the comfort of doing one’s bit for slowing down climate change. Were it not for neglected railway and underground systems, along with the worldwide chaos on public roads and the opportunism of presenting EVs as “green” and green as good, not many people would tolerate the shock therapy.

EVs play another unrecognised though crucial role: they make the plague of private cars kosher – kosher is something generally approved of or seen to be correct, if I may draw on my cultural roots.

This ability to sanitise regardless of the level of contamination is remarkable.

This alchemy is at its most egregious when it comes, not to motor sport – which must rank among the most incompatible with combating climate change and related issues – but to the highest form of this activity: Grand Prix racing.

Regardless of engine type, speed – including acceleration – is the essence of this racing. Speed legitimises the manufacture of private cars designed to break legal speed limits by a factor of three and more. This results in headlines such as “the F1-inspired, R47m supercar”, the “350km/h Mercedes”.

Besides being a major cause of road carnage, speed requires excessively large engines, along with the enhanced components – beginning with brakes, tyres and suspensions – to cope with the speed.

The recent type-E version of this celebration of speed on the streets of Cape Town shows that nothing is impossible when masquerading as “green”.

Business Day enthused about “The Soothing Sound of Climate-Cool Motorsport”. Even Daily Maverick succumbed to the green mask in an article by its sports reporter, titled: “Spectacular Cape Town E-Prix gives a glimpse of a more sustainable future”.

Another Daily Maverick reporter uncritically noted that one of the main objectives of this green mask is to pave the way for the return of real Grand Prix racing to South Africa.

The not-so-kosher EVs

The problem with EVs begins with the simple, usually overlooked, fact that they are still vehicles – 350 million EVs, representing 60% of all vehicle sales, are expected by 2030. Each one of them therefore reproduces all but one – the energy source – of the multiple reasons why all roads lead to rail (primarily).

I detailed these problems in my 2019 article. They persist in 2023. Along with brief updates, they are:

  • Vehicles kill: 35 million people were killed in 2022, with between 20 and 50 million people sustaining non-fatal injuries. Serious road trauma was estimated in 2012 to cost the world more than $1.5-trillion per year;
  • Urban congestion: with vehicles remaining the single most important manufacturing sector worldwide, vehicles will be produced in whatever numbers are likely to be sold, regardless of what it will mean for already congested streets. The average American already spends more than 12 weeks sitting in traffic congestion [Daily Maverick28/2/2023]. There were about 446 billion vehicles on Earth in 2022, which gives scale to the problem;
  • Urban gridlock: gets continually worse because of ever-increasing vehicle volumes alongside deteriorating public transport systems;
  • Cost of roads, including maintenance. The US alone spends some $416-billion annually;
  • Water: Up-to-date and accurate information is not readily available. The estimates of water used in manufacturing vary from 4,000 litres to 147,631 litres per car. The only certainty is that car manufacturing is a very thirsty business in a very water-scarce world;
  • Tyres: remain a major pollutant and health hazard;
  • Resource depletion: EVs exacerbate this problem rather than just reproducing it; and
  • Human rights abuses: EVs ensure the perpetuation of this blight.

Due to space considerations, only two EV-specific additions to the above will be mentioned. Batteries are central to both. Human and economic costs are already covered above.

The battery-specific problem begins with weight. Batteries are considerably heavier than the engines they replace. The head of the US National Transportation Safety Board gave examples when warning about the “increased risk of severe injury and death” posed by EVs’ heavier weights and increasing size, power, and performance. The main warning from the National Transportation Safety Board was against these “unintended consequences” of the dash for EVs.

The second battery-related issue is recharging. If fossil-based electricity is used to recharge the battery, it is greenwashing to claim that EVs produce “zero emissions”.

With coal providing 63% of US electricity, research shows (here and here) that, rather than tax breaks and other subsidies being given to promote EVs in the US, there should instead be a tax on EVs. Yet, the Biden administration has set a goal of having EVs reach 50% of new vehicle sales by 2030 and is offering tax credits of up to $7,500 per vehicle to get there.

Not in South Africa

South Africa is unique among industrialised countries in having tax penalties on EVs rather than inducements. This not unexpectedly led to a Business Day editorial echoing the car companies’ “panic”.

Attempting a proper understanding of what might lie behind our government’s enduring rejection of the embrace of Catastrophe Capitalism is beyond the scope of this article and a subject for another time.

What can be noted now, however, is that rather than the financial support being given by governments around the world to go electric, our government is giving tax inducements to both industry and the general public to provide their own electricity. The prospect of widespread EV battery recharging would be like attaching lead to the legs of a drowning person.

Yes, in South Africa! This begins with the recognition that, in the words of Brett Herron of the GOOD party, “South Africa’s land transport crisis is as severe as its electricity crisis, though less mentioned.”

What is needed is a public, integrated, mass transport system, based mainly on trains and buses – rather than taxis, lorries, trucks and private cars – and is safe, cheap, reliable, frequent and offers a service throughout the day and much of the night, at least in large cities.

Instead of the cynical use of Catastrophe Capitalism promoting EVs to the benefit of its investors and already privileged individuals, let’s use the reality of our collapsed land transport system to be daring. This means thinking big, while we still have time to delay, if not prevent, climate catastrophe.

Yes, we have a government that’s good only at doing nothing, besides being not too bad on the corruption front. And, yes, the transport infrastructure so desperately needed will not come cheap. But with an economy on life-support, with nearly half our population being unemployed and with the working poor being the lot of half the workers lucky enough to be employed, demanding the impossible would be entirely reasonable.

Helping us move beyond the idea that the state can never deliver, we have to remind ourselves of Eskom being named the world’s best power company by the Financial Timesof London two decades ago. This fact is so unthinkable in 2023 that it merits quoting from the 2002 report in Engineering News:

“South Africa’s State-owned electricity utility has been named as the global power company of the year.

“Eskom received the prestigious international award at the Financial Times Global Energy Awards ceremony held in New York on December 6, for exhibiting technical excellence in plant production, maintenance and operation while at the same time demonstrating an ability to provide the world’s lowest-cost electricity to its customers.”

As a déjà vu moment, the report – reminding us that exposing Eskom to private competition had strong government and public support – notes:

“However, many have questioned the sensibility of radically altering an industry where a monopoly is serving the nation with continuous low-cost, high-quality power.”

Some – like the Alternative Information and Development Centre (where I work) – continue to question this “sensibility”.

The AIDC continues to argue for the large number of climate jobs to be created by a climate-friendly, economy-expanding and people-focused transport system.

What can be guaranteed is that this won’t happen if left to the government or “the market”. The failure of Catastrophe Capitalism to bring EVs to South Africa could be the catalyst to the real transport changes required here.

Transport-rational EVs are the future. But, even if climate change allows for such a future – and even if the government of the day implemented transport-rational policies – a transition to EVs, whether rail, buses, trucks, lorries and cars, is a middle-distance future, at best. The cost of EVs, an almost non-existing re-charging network and a chronically constrained electricity supply are the immovable roadblocks, for the time being.

Turning this blockage into an advantage provides the time needed to transform our transport system into one which, being transport-rational, welcomes EVs. If this sounds utopian, let’s be reminded by Albert Einstein:

“If at first an idea does not sound absurd, there is no hope for it.” DM

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick

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