Mon, Jul

Do Cars Dream of an Electric Future?


GREEN ENERGY - It is no surprise that capitalism, a system that prioritizes private profit before all else, is destroying our planet.

And it is no surprise that the very same corporations that have overseen this destruction are now pretending that they care. This grotesque phenomenon is clearly illustrated by the ongoing contortions being displayed by the global automobile industry with their newly professed obsession in selling us electric cars.

Take the case of General Motors (GM), who apparently envision “a world with zero crashes, to save lives; zero emissions, so future generations can inherit a healthier planet; and zero congestion, so customers get back a precious commodity – time.”

Recall this is the same company that backed President Trump to the hilt to undermine America’s already poor environmental policymaking — a foul legacy they have been quick to distance themselves from now that the Democrats are back in charge. Indeed, GM’s commitment to degrading our ecosystems is matched only by their efforts to attack their employees organising in their factories.

GM of course is not actually interested in creating a healthier world with zero emissions so that ordinary people can have more time to live: they just have one ambition and that is put everyone into one of their electric vehicles. This however represents a capitalist solution to a capitalist problem. As even if all cars were electric, this solution would still fail to avert the impending climate emergency.

The only driver for GM is profit. As the Financial Times put it: “General Motors plans to double its revenues to $280bn by 2030 while increasing profit margins as the company steers away from manufacturing petrol-powered cars towards electric vehicles.” Yet even then GM acknowledge that most of their revenue will be derived from the sale of non-electric vehicles, and the Financial Times notes that by 2030 just $90bn of GM’s profits is predicted to come from the sale of zero emission vehicles.

But is the goal of putting more electric cars on the roads a real solution to climate disaster? The answer is no, it is far too little to avert the impending disaster. As for companies like General Motors, electric cars merely represent a new way of making even more money.

A zero-emission future will never be possible if capitalists remain in the driving seat. Instead, all we will see is more cars on the road; and if the capitalists have their way, this will coincide with having less people using public transport. Moreover, capitalist powerbrokers will continue to degrade our existing public transport infrastructure with the one exception being in those places in the world where workers are already priced out from owning cars — a problem that will only intensify with the current planned roll-out of overpriced electric cars.

This unfortunate trend is confirmed by a recent study that predicted global growth in the total number of cars (Light Duty Vehicles) by 55% from 2015 to 2030, while predicting that bus numbers would increase by just 39%. This would mean the total number of LDV cars on the world’s roads in 2030 would be just over 1.6bn (plus another 0.3bn heavy duty vehicles) with a total of 11.5 million buses on the road.

The same study estimated that of the 121 million vehicles that will be sold across the world in 2030 the vast majority of them will still be of the most polluting kind (84 million), with around 21 million Hybrid Electric Vehicles sold and a further 13 million Battery Electric Vehicles sold. The International Energy Association likewise predict that electric vehicles will account for about 16% of all road vehicle sales by 2030, with electric vehicles comprising about 7% of the global vehicle fleet by 2030. This of course represents steady progress, but indicates that the future will not be quite as electric as the corporate propaganda would have us believe.

In another report the United Nations point out that although the transport sector “is responsible for around a quarter of direct CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion” (with personal car use comprising about half of these emissions), such transport emissions “are projected to grow substantially in the years to come, further exacerbating climate change.” Hence the United Nations conclude that: “Even if today’s commitments to decarbonize transport were fully implemented, the expected emission reductions from these policies would be more than offset by increased transport demand.”

Moreover, although it is obvious, it is important to remember that the benefits of electric travel will largely be limited to the richest parts of the world, and as less polluting cars are put on to the streets in richer nations, there remains the ongoing export/dumping of millions of polluting second-hand cars to poorer countries. As the aforementioned UN report observes:

“Due to factors such as environmental protection regulations, however, the responsible disposal of used vehicles can be expensive in originating markets, making the export of used vehicles, including obsolete vehicles, to developing countries more attractive and lucrative.”

Despite such endless hypocrisy it is hard to avoid the fact that the UK represents an example of a country where the government has set ambitious emissions targets (if nothing else) with the aim to end sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

One government report that was released last December at least admitted that electric vehicles (ULEV) do not represent a “silver bullet” solution. It pointed out that while they “improve local air quality and reduce point-of-use emissions; however they are not net-zero when considering the whole life cycle of a vehicle and its sub-components, as well as the particulate matter emitted on-street.”

The same government report boasted of the successes that had been achieved with electric uptake in Norway. But earlier last year, as part of their submission to the House of Commons Transport Committee inquiry on zero emissions vehicles and road pricing the environmental nonprofit Greener Transport Solutions had warned of what can happen if electric vehicles (EV) are promoted without a genuine strategy for improving public transport. They wrote:

“Norway has the most ambitious EV target in the world, with all new cars to be ULEV by 2025. By 2018 already 45% were ULEV. Measures have included tax incentives, free parking, free access to bus lanes and no charges on toll roads. Whilst the policy has been extremely successful in terms of take up of EVs, it has also encouraged more driving. Public transport’s share of commuting has fallen from 23% to 6%. The car’s share has risen from 65% to 83%.”

Such an outcome represents the dream come true for the car industry and stands as the logical outcome of the capitalist approach to so-called green travel.

The lesson we need to learn from this is if we allow the current expansion of electric vehicles to continue – dictated, as it is, by market priorities — the number of cars on our streets will continue to grow while public transport languishes, and those richer individuals who can afford to purchase an electric car will make further gains that are not experienced by most others. This will lead to the intensification of already existing travel inequalities especially amongst those who out of necessity are already suffering from “car related economic stress” and will only serve to alienate more people from an equitable transition to a green future.

If we are serious about promoting green transport, then the number one priority must be to massively invest in public transport. This work should be undertaken in coordination with transport unions, to ensure that no workers are penalized in any efforts to transition towards the provision of free public transport for all.

Electric vehicles can still play one small part in moving towards such a more sustainable way of running the world. But we can do much better than accept the solutions offered to us by the very same polluting multinational car manufacturers that have made so much money at the expense of ordinary workers. (For example, just last year Volkswagen and BMW were caught out for cheating on emissions testing in the same way that General Motors use of illegal devices to defeat pollution controls was exposed in 1995… how little changes.)

Ordinary people face a global climate emergency, and so we need to think big in terms of our ambitions for saving our planet. A critical part of a socialist solution to addressing this emergency will entail workers in all parts of the automotive industries worldwide organizing internationally to take their workplaces into public ownership so they can run under the democratic control of themselves.

This would likely lead to different decisions being made as to the future of electric transportation, with a new focus on manufacturing products that can help provide free and clean public transport to help connect the world.

No workers should lose out in such a major reorientation of what has historically been such an environmentally destructive industry. And as other trade unionists have said before there will be plenty of opportunities for retraining of workers to fill the millions of new climate jobs that will be opened up when we collectively decide that a socialist future is really worth fighting for.


(Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017). He also writes for CounterPunch.org where this story was featured.)