England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Transport and infrastructure

Electric vehicles, environmental sustainability, and everyday life

Some people argued that our recent general election should have been about the climate emergency; it wasn’t. While one You Gov poll showed that the importance of environmental issues increased markedly over the period from the 2017 election, it was not critical for choice for many voters. The early signals from our new UK government do not highlight it as a major factor in government plans, though the Queen’s Speech may announce some measures.

Of course, each of the parties [other than the Brexit Party] claimed they were going to ‘do something’ about the climate crisis, but there was a lack of specificity in much of what was offered and matters raised were often treated very lightly. There were the occasional highlights that attracted some media attention. Broadcast media, social media and the press spent a few excited days dissecting a Labour party proposal to argue how many trees foresters can plant in a day, where they can source the trees and where they might plant them. Boris Johnson promised an electric vehicle charging point within 30 miles of all homes in the UK – a formidable technical challenge, the difficulty of which was not widely discussed. Nicola Horlick, a finance sector star and Liberal Democrat candidate claimed that £50 flights were too cheap, caused environmental damage and should be rationed; she also suggested that people who did not fly could sell their ration to those who ‘needed to fly…’ of whom it seems likely she is one.

During our general election, COP 25 [the Conference of the Parties] was meeting – though not very successfully – in Madrid, with the next annual event planned for Glasgow in 2020. Inside the conference hall, there was lengthy and complex discussion by various interested people and organisations who failed to reach agreement on crucial matters such as pricing carbon trading; outside many young people demanded that governments ‘do something now’.

What is becoming a little clearer in all of this is the complexity of doing quite a lot of different  ‘somethings’, and how that poses questions to government bodies – local councils and public sector in particular – and to us as citizens. There is a challenge here, because while government has a lot to do, the private sector also has a lot to do, as do citizens. We need to adjust our lifestyle choices, sometimes in quite dramatic ways that will overturn many of the assumptions and expectations that we all have come to live with over the past 4 or so decades and that have shaped our lives, almost regardless of our age group. In some cases that challenge may be quite stark – even brutal. On November 16th, when Qantas launched the 19-hour non-stop flight from the UK to Australia there was a lot of media coverage with plenty of journalists on the plane. Some limited discussion was about the carbon impact of that flight; and as Tom Whipple observed in The Times, for any climate-conscious traveller the answer is clear. ‘They don’t go to Australia in the first place.’

Wherever I look, I can see limited discussion about the impact on us as citizens and the role that we will have to play as citizens in attempting to redress climate degradation. There are certainly very few as sharp and direct as the observation by Whipple.

At one level around the world governments both central and local with different and varied responsibilities are announcing ambitions to be ‘carbon zero’ by a stated year. It does remain hard to see what direct and specific impact that plan has on us as citizens and what it requires us to contribute. Various public bodies including Edinburgh City Council, where I live, issue positive and encouraging reports and statements on the climate emergency, though with limited detail on exactly what the impact on households and citizens will be to create a carbon-free city by 2030 – now only 10 years away. So for example, although Edinburgh has one of the lowest levels of household car ownership in Scotland, along with Glasgow and Dundee, there are still currently around 190,000 cars owned in the city. The ‘Achieving Net Zero ‘plan appears to project some 2000 electric cars per annum added to the total, an annual switching rate of around 1%. This does not seem ambitious; although as electric cars improve in their capabilities and reduce in cost, ownership and use could rise more rapidly.

So let’s focus on one everyday activity that those of us who own cars often have to do; trying to park that car, not just near our homes but in destinations for shopping, working and leisure.

Car parking and the enforcement of car parking regulations is often fiercely criticised but if we do see the continuing shift to electric cars accelerate over the next few years, it will be essential to create even more robust 24 hours/ 7 days a week parking regimes in our major towns and cities, and our workplaces if any parking is provided.

The logic of this is simple, but satisfactory solutions are complex and require major shifts in attitude and behaviour. That may be made more difficult by the fact that many of the necessary environmental changes we should make have what we might call an ‘equality paradox’ buried at their core – I return to this below – but Whipple and  Horlick both signal it how it may impact on us, and particularly households with lower incomes.

The current status and capability of most electric cars is such that they have a range of between 100 and 200 miles; that’s why ‘range anxiety ‘ is currently cited as the biggest barrier to mode switching. Such distance limitations mean somebody commuting between either Edinburgh and Glasgow and the University of Stirling [a typical car commuting workplace] will probably want the reassurance of charging their car every day. Ideally, that means they have access to charge points at home and at their destination. As electric car ownership grows there will be more and more people doing this and they will want a destination charging point as well. Currently, Stirling University appears to have four charging points – and they are tariff-free – and that, of course, means that they are likely to be used much more than home-based chargers, when electricity costs have to be paid by the householder.

Over and above that cost differential the charging time for full load clearly varies from car to car but can take several hours and will always be much longer than for conventional oil-based fuel with a typical  ‘refuel time ‘ of 5 minutes. Edinburgh University for example, with fewer than 10 electric vehicle [EV] charge points currently limit charging stays to 3 hours.

So I think we can reasonably assume that at the beginning of the day, the people arriving first will be plugging into any workplace base charging points and staying there for some time. On current technology capabilities, each charge point will support about only about 3-4 cars over the typical working day – if everybody concerned follows a pretty strict and enforced protocol about use. That’s why we can be very sceptical about some slightly misleading claims that there are now more EV charging points than conventional fuel garages. To compare single EV charge points with an 18 or 24 hose garage is meaningless. Some councils are doing well, with Dundee probably the leading council in the UK.

When our driver gets back home, charging will be easier if they have a house off-street car access, or are in shared access parking for apartments with an installed charger point or points. Currently, there will be a public grant of £500 for installing such a charger, and if the driver is resident in Scotland, an additional £300 from the Energy Saving Trust , a not-for-profit social enterprise.

However, in many of our towns and cities, particularly in tenement or terraced housing areas, owners of cars will be required to use street parking and by mid-evening in many areas that is very crowded. In a number of councils there is discussion about using the street lighting system for EV car charging, local authorities can apply for Department of Transport grant to install street lighting systems and in London this is being trialled in a limited way. All the web site illustrations of such schemes do tend to show vehicles on charge with plentiful space around them, missing some of the nose-to-tail parking seen in many city streets, particularly at night.

So if our EV driver gets home from Stirling, unable to secure an available charging place there during the day, they might well find a similar charging congestion near their home – on a wet and windy December night. Currently, it appears that there are no local authorities planning for tougher regulation on such EV Street charging points and enforcing it at 10:30 pm on that wet windy night.

To make a successful transition to a zero-carbon economy, or even a reduced carbon economy we will need to make changes to many of the social and regulatory norms that we currently take for granted. There are no widespread signs of that yet.

At the same time we need to find ways to address the ‘equality paradox ‘in carbon reduction. 70% of households have access to 1 or more cars, in the lowest decile of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation that drops to 50%. Electric car owners are more likely [to judge by new electric car prices] to be in higher-income categories than the typical population. As a society – by government decision – we are financially encouraging the installation of home charging points by grants and in many places we are providing for public EV charging at no cost to owners. The Energy Saving Trust is currently showcasing an interest-free loan of up to £35,000 over 6 years for electric vehicle purchase funded by Transport Scotland.

In a country with major problems of fuel poverty, we might wonder if giving the already-privileged the equivalent of about £8000 [the interest not levied] can be justified.

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