Green Future is Not So Simple

Everyone seems to agree, green cars are the future! If we handle the transition away from fossil fuels right, we should be looking back one day at today’s addiction to the internal-combustion-engine-powered personal passenger vehicle and finding ourselves shaking our heads at the absurdity of it all.

Consider just what we’ve long done with our cars at the end of their useful lives: send them off to the scrap heap. The good news, though, is that’s changed considerably in recent years, with about 84 per cent of a car’s content now being recycled in the US. And with metals prices once again rising since they crashed along with economy in 2008, there’s a strong incentive to keep boosting that figure. (It’s also helped that Europe has had an End of Life Vehicles directive in place since 2000.)

Automakers themselves are seeing the benefit. Renault, for example, has partnered with French recycling firm SITA with the goal of recovering 95 per cent of the material from old cars for reuse in new ones. And PSA Peugeot Citroën not only uses recycled metal but has set a goal this year of reducing plastic content and using 20 per cent “green” polymers in its vehicles.

Beyond the material content of cars, though, there’s the whole transportation model itself. Our overwhelming dependence on petrol-fueled vehicles is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. And transportation is driving some 95 per cent of the globe’s increasing appetite for oil.

Sure, driving a car is more convenient than waiting for a bus (if they’re even available where you live) and quicker than walking. But new models of getting around are beginning to emerge: car-sharing and car clubs, hybrids and EVs, and, eventually, even smart cars that can let you know when public transport is a better option. In fact, as a new report from business and technology service company Logica points out, new models will have to emerge … thanks largely to the combined threats of peak oil and climate change.

“Both the end of oil and the effects of global warming point to the same conclusion: we need to move to alternatively powered vehicles that have little or no dependence on oil and very low or zero emissions,” states the report, “Eco-Mobility: The end of the road for fossil fuels?”

The transition won’t be easy or quick, but there are other reasons to smarten up our ways of travelling. As the report points out, the auto industry in the UK accounts for over 3 per cent of GDP … but road accidents, congestion, pollution and related health effects make a serious dent in that economic benefit. In fact, serious road accidents alone cost Europe about 2 per cent of its annual GDP. This suggests that today’s cars aren’t the great economic benefit they first appear to be, but that transport — as opposed to just cars –  could be, especially if it’s made safer and more efficient.

Cars are individually expensive as well: not just in fuel costs, but in taxes, parking fees, insurance and maintenance. It’s interesting to note that governments, while on the one hand trying to encourage cleaner, more efficient means of transport, will suffer a financial blow as gas-based tax revenues decline. Making up for those losses means officials will have to turn elsewhere for revenues,, whether it’s a carbon tax or new fees on vehicles that don’t use petrol.

Theo Quick, Logica’s head of intelligent transport solutions, foresees some encouraging developments over the next five years, including a “huge push” in the UK to get many more citizens using electric vehicles instead of fossil fuel-powered cars. Some of the larger-scale transportation issues, however — tax policies, a transition away from car ownership and alternative transport fuels such as hydrogen — will take longer to resolve, he believes.

While there’s a good amount of investment and momentum beginning today, meeting longer-term fuel and climate targets will remain a challenge, according to Quicke.

“I think we’re probably tight on time, in truth,” he said.

One of the biggest hurdles in getting from here to there will likely be keeping progress consistent in an inconsistent economic environment. With the price of Brent crude having now passed the $100-a-barrel mark for the first time since late 2008, we’re dancing on an especially shaky tightrope: should oil grow much more expensive, the global economy risks another slowdown, which will put a crimp on investment in alternative transportation technologies. It would also hit consumers’ pocketbooks yet again while at the same time reducing world demand for oil, which would cause petrol prices to drop … a big disincentive to buying pricier yet more fuel-efficient cars.

In other words, there are a lot of ifs ands and buts between the here and there of transport.