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Op-Ed: Electric cars are not a panacea!

By Jeff Rudin  | M&G | 3 May 2021


Volkswagen launches second all-electric car plant in Germany. IMAGE: VW


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%. 

· Urban congestion is the lived experience of anyone who has the misfortune of travelling by road in virtually any large city – regardless of how many, or few, EVs there are. With cars being status symbols, SUVs – city-legal tanks (with a 6.75l 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce as the ultimate absurdity) – increasingly take up the ever-diminishing space on roads. Moreover, the ever-increasing number of vehicles on the road aggravates congestion, travel time and stress levels. And South Africa’s car production, regardless of engine type, is required to more than double by 2035.

· Urban gridlock is the inevitable outcome of congestion. Gridlock means that the congestion is so bad that no one moves, leaving everyone trapped in their cars. A 100km traffic jam on a Beijing highway in 2010 resulted in 11 days of total gridlock immobility. Gridlocked Cape Town is a South African disaster waiting to happen, for Cape Town is already the 48th-most congested city in the world.

· Tyres: there were 1.5-billion waste tyres in the world in 2017. What to do with them is a major waste problem. End-of-life tyres are difficult to process for any kind of recycling; moreover, tyres are not biodegradable. And every year there are more of them. Self-styled “developed” countries have regulations to deal with the problem, but respecting these regulations are expensive. It is much cheaper to export them to poor countries. George Monbiot provides some of the horrific details of how India disposes of Britain’s throwaway tyres. 

· The problem of far too many junk tyres brings us to its opposite problem of finite physical resources. Thanks to Kevin Bloom, we know that the 53% of global carbon emissions coming from resource extraction – from “pulling materials out of the ground and preparing them for use” – does not include the substantial emissions from all subsequent burning of fossil fuels. Moreover, these ominous numbers exclude less obvious resources such as water. Against the known serious shortage of global water, the five major car manufacturers in the US use more than 100-million cubic metres of water a year to make their cars. That’s 40 000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Another US measure puts the water used for each car at between 52 000 litres and 82 999 litres. Yet another metric: to make one ton of steel to make one car uses 121 000 litres of water. The numbers differ, but whatever they are, they all point to the huge amount of scarce water that is being used. 

· The cost of roads and their maintenance is another consideration. We all know about South African potholes. The backlog in maintaining the current road network was R197-billion in 2018.

· And for what? To make cars – SUVs – that have no rightful place on city streets. To make cars designed to travel at 350km/h, when the legal urban speed limit worldwide is mostly between 50 and 80km/h and between 90 and 130km/h on motorways. (130km/h is the advisory maximum even in Germany.) To make cars that compete in acceleration times measured in fractions of seconds, set against the size of engines, brakes and tyres required for such absurdities.

· EVs reproduce all these absurdities. (See here, here,and here, for example.)

These absurdities all point in one direction: Outside of the economics of the madhouse, all roads must lead to rail. At the very least we need an urgent and drastic reduction of road vehicles. But the opposite continues to happen in South Africa, beginning with the destruction of the passenger rail system, where 80% of South African train users — about 550 000 people — have abandoned their use of rail since 2013. 

In some instances, rail has abandoned them. Cape Town’s Central Line, the busiest line serving the poorest communities, including Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain, Nyanga and Bonteheuwel, stopped all services in October 2019. The rail-abandoned people are then forced to use taxis at five times the cost of a train ticket.

Montmasson-Clair is not wrong when saying that “the primary reason for transitioning to electric cars is economics.” But it is right only when the economics he refers to are the economics of the status quo, of the rationality of capitalist logic. The future demands a different economics. 

EVs are an essential part of this economics, but only as part of a comprehensive and integrated transport system designed to provide affordable, convenient and safe transport for everyone. This means public transport based on trains, buses and coaches. It most certainly does not mean still more private cars – including taxis – regardless of how “green” they might be. 

France has set a wonderful precedent by banning domestic flights where there’s a suitable train alternative.

The future demands a different transport system, a system designed not only “to galvanise industrial development” but to ensure that we do have a future. Or, in the words of Germany’s constitutional court, to protect young people’s “fundamental rights to a human future”. 

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the M&G.

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