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Mail and Guardian, electric cars are not a panacea

Mail and Guardian, electric cars are not a panacea

Jeff Rudin | Mail and Guardian | 03 May, 2021

Life would be simple if the only problem with cars was their petrol engines. Alas, although the transition from fossil fuels is necessary, the problem with cars goes way beyond the energy source of their engines.

Just days ago Germany’s supreme constitutional court found its government’s climate mitigating measures to be insufficient to protect future generations, despite the acclaim often given to the German government for its leading role in renewable energy. The court declared the government’s greenhouse gas reduction targets to be unconstitutionally negligent for threatening young people’s “fundamental rights to a human future”. With a rebuke that could be levelled against most countries – most certainly South Africa – the court required the German government to take “more urgent and shorter-term measures” to meet the targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The judges noted: “Virtually every freedom is potentially affected by these future emission reduction obligations because almost every area of human life is associated with the emission of greenhouse gases.” 

Little wonder, then, that electric cars (EVs) are seen to be the future.Mail & Guardian journalist Sarah Smit thinks so. “Gear up for electric cars” is the enthusiastic headline, along with the reassuring subheading: “South Africa is behind others in e-mobility policy. But it’s not too late.” 

However, the article is not another call for the green economy. Tellingly, the word “green” doesn’t appear in the piece; nor does “climate”. Lest there be any doubt about what lies behind her promotion of EVs, Smit approvingly quotes Gaylor Montmasson-Clair, saying “the primary reason for transitioning to electric cars is economics”. Montmasson-Clair is a senior economist at the NGO Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (Tips).

It’s the economics of the 10-million EVs already on global roads. The problem is not the size of this number. The problem is the infinitesimally small number of EVs in South Africa – only 1 509 out of 10-million. 

South Africa has a strong vehicle manufacturing industry, which contributed about 7% of GDP before Covid-19. A Tips paper compiled for the department of trade and industry and the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa) shows how South Africa could use EVs “to galvanise industrial development”, as Smit puts it. 

Here is what was missing from Smit’s argument: (Some of what follows draws on a previously published article from August 2019.)

A car remains a car even if it is an EV. Private cars, available in unlimited numbers to everyone who can afford them, have no proper place in today’s world. Prior to Covid-19, there were some 1.015-trillion vehicles in the world, with 70.5-million passenger cars being produced in 2018. Production was expected to grow by 10-million in 2019. 

Cars kill and maim regardless of their engine type. Worldwide, cars killed 1.25-million people in 2017. Between 20- and 50-million people were injured or disabled. The global cost of these accidents was $518-billion. A World Health Organisation report in 2018 cites road deaths as the leading cause of death among people aged between 5 and 29 years, and the eighth-leading cause of death in the world. Cars kill between 12 000 and 14 000 South Africans a year. The cost of accidents on our roads is in excess of R164-billion or 3.23% of the country’s GDP. By comparison, agriculture’s total contribution to GDP in the same year was only 1.88%. 

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