Saturday, 9 September 2017

Business as usual by driving a "Green car" vs. actually using a genuinely clean and green mode of transport

In the late 80s I worked as a contract software engineer and lived as a sort of a self-propelled technological vagrant. I had never had an interest in cars and wouldn't learn to drive for several more years so all my travel was by public transport, by bicycle or by foot. Many people thought this an unusual choice, but I managed to make my way with an ancient laptop computer and portable stereo to wherever I had work to do.

2017: Car companies have never shied away from claiming
that their product is "green", but actually cars are anything
but a "green" product. Similarly, this sign claims that a
product which kills over a million people every year is "safe".
For a few months I worked off and on at a location in South London where I found accommodation in a local family's spare room. It was just as well that I didn't drive as there would have been nowhere to park a car, Mum, Dad and both their sons had cars so the driveway and the road outside were already full. They were sociable people and there were often conversations over breakfast, often concerning annoyance with traffic jams and the cost of fuel. One morning my landlady told me that it was going to be expensive but because she was so concerned about the environment she was buying a new "green" car (she used the word "green").

It seemed to me that the problem with that area was that is was dominated by cars. I couldn't see how changing from one model of car to another was going to achieve any sort of transformation (I think I've been proven to be right as it's still dominated by cars, just like the rest of London). I pointed out that building a new car costs in lot of energy and resources and that therefore keeping an older model going for a few more years would quite possibly have a lower environmental impact than changing prematurely to a new one. I also pointed out that the new car would burn fossil fuels at much the same rate as her old car so those gains would be marginal at best. But it was too late for any of this as the marketing people's work had been done and a mind had been made up: My temporary landlady was convinced that new technology made the new car so much better than the old so she was buying one. What was this new technology ? It was merely that the new vehicle could (optionally) run on unleaded petrol.

The environmental advice on offer to drivers is confusing.
These energy labels for new cars show a better rating for
a car with higher emissions. Why ? Because they are based
on the weight/class of the car. The lighter car with the C
rating produces lower emissions per km. No advice is given
to not buy or use a car.
I was a guest in someone else's home and I left it at that, but this thought always stayed with me: Marketing works. A very pleasant woman had been convinced to part with a lot of money to buy a new "green" car because she thought it would allow driving with a clean conscience, in addition to it being a nice thing to show off to her friends. Of course she was far from the only one convinced: Many millions of people have since followed the same path.

Now it's a good thing that lead was removed from automotive fuels. The entire planet was being contaminated with lead from the exhausts of cars and this was especially concentrated in cities and alongside busy roads where many people lived. The result of lead pollution included lowered intelligence and higher crime rates. But could a car modified only so that it could run on lead free fuel be said to be "green" ? Surely not. Hardening valve seats to allow use of unleaded fuel was a relatively inexpensive development which allowed for a new model year of car to be produced, distinct from the old, but it was really just the smallest improvement which the manufacturers could make when faced with possible legislation against them. The greater problems with cars had not been tackled - new cars burnt just as much fuel as the old and carbon emissions were therefore the same. The "green" marketing served its purpose in that it extracted money from customers' bank accounts and sold more cars, but it did nothing for the environment.

Let"s not forget about the other environmental effects of
driving. Tyre rubber makes up a large % of the "plastic soup"
in our oceans. The heavier the vehicle, the quicker the tyre
wears. Electric cars produce more rubber dust than petrol
cars and all cars produce far more dust than bicycles. There
is still no viable method to recycle tyres.
Since that time there have been several other claimed environmental improvements to cars, including catalytic converters (introduced later than lead-free in the UK), autogas, "clean diesel", hybrid, plug-on hybrid and fully electric cars. In each case, bold environmental claims have been made by car manufacturers. Each new type of car was marketed as offering the dream of continuing our lives as usual or even of increasing our use of cars while allowing drivers to have a clean conscience. It's public knowledge now that the clean diesel claims were deliberately based on a deception, but actually this has all been an illusion.

A 1950s mini and a modern mini have similar CO2 emissions.
So does an electric car. This slide comes from a presentation
which I gave in Assen in January on the subject of genuinely
clean and green transport.
Electric cars are the current hype so that's something that's worth talking about now.

 In the Netherlands, 25% of electricity is generated by burning coal and 60% by burning gas. i.e. in total the electricity is generated 85% from the burning of fossil fuels. That is why the CO2 output as a result of driving an electric car is almost identical to that from driving a fossil fuel powered car.

I'm doubtful that any real progress has been made in reducing total CO2 emissions from cars since I had that conversation nearly 30 years ago because while cars haven't become significantly more efficient, their use has most certainly increased since then. Extend the time-line a little and we can be absolutely sure that modern cars produce more CO2 emissions than were contained in the obviously dirty exhausts of the 1950s because today's "green" cars are far higher in number and this swamps the relatively small efficiency improvements made.

The red line shows car usage growth since the 1950s in the
Netherlands. Today's slightly more efficient cars are far
more taxing for the environment than the dirtier cars of
old because they are being driven ten times as much.
Deaths per passenger km (in blue) have improved but
while that's good news, it's a topic for another day.
I think at this point it's worth bearing in mind that by the late 1980s in western nations, car usage had already been through its steepest growth period. In countries where the strongest growth is happening now or where it is yet to come, all the growth is just growth and all the emissions are in addition to what was there before. There is no possible argument that these new emissions can possibly be countered by improvements in efficiency over what there was before.

More cars are leading to more pollution. It doesn't much matter what the fuel source is, the result is the same. The only way to produce less pollution from motor vehicles is to use them less.

Government reaction to a growing problem
1970s magazine impression of a futuristic efficient electric
car, light weight and low performance. Unfortunately, the trend
has been towards higher weight and better performance which
has led to higher emissions. Subsidies are now given to
encourage people to buy relatively inefficient vehicles.
Anyway, most car journeys are over cycle-able distances.
Governments around the world are now falling over themselves to offer incentives to those who buy new electric cars. Many millions of $, €, ¥ and 圆 are now being given away to encourage people to drive.

For example, the Dutch government has offered €1000 to people who scrap their old cars, but only if they use the money to buy a new car. This is a subsidy which encourages people to continue to drive. Anyone who wishes to scrap their old car and not drive at all cannot receive the subsidy. In addition, there are other incentives worth thousands more for people who buy an electric car. All these subsidies and incentives can only be used by those who choose to continue to pollute by continuing to drive. What's more, the more you drive, the bigger the saving that can be made.

Most journeys made by motor vehicle are short enough that they could instead be made by human power. In most cases a normal bicycle or by using an efficient bicycle such as a velomobile to cover slightly longer distances and enable comfortable cycling in all weathers. There are no subsidies to help to enable people to buy velomobiles. Modern, efficient, velomobiles are almost all produced by Dutch companies, but these companies do not receive the support from government which is offered to foreign companies producing electric cars.

The Netherlands continues to achieve more for cycling than any other country but even here there isn't enough attention being placed on encouraging people not to use motorized transport. Roads for cars receive at least ten times the funding available for cycling facilities.

But can't we use "green" electricity ?
Only 25% of Dutch electricity is now generated by burning
coal vs. 100% 50 years ago. Unfortunately that means
twice as much coal is burnt now compared with before.
50 years ago, almost all electricity generated around the world was the result of burning coal. This was the case in the Netherlands as well. Now just a quarter of all electricity in the Netherlands comes from coal, which might look like progress.

Unfortunately, the consumption of electricity has grown so much that to generate a quarter of our electricity today requires burning twice as much coal as was burnt 50 years ago. In addition, 60% of electricity results on burning gas, which produces about half the CO2 emissions of coal for the same useful electricity output but because more than twice as much generation comes from burning gas as from coal, the emissions of the gas power stations are even greater than the emissions of the coal stations.

It's not just the Netherlands that is reliant on fossil fuels for
electricity. This graph shows the growth in generation world
. The brown part is the contribution of fossil fuels.
It's completely unreasonable to expect that "green" electric
cars which double the total demand for electricity will be able
to run solely on renewables when faced with this data.
The contribution from renewable sources is still small at around 10% of the total, and it's still intermittent. We have an array of solar panels on our roof which generates more electricity than we use in our home and our business combined each year. Unfortunately, on overcast rainy September mornings like this morning, our "3600 W" system only produces about 1/10th of the electricity required to boil a kettle for a cup of tea. While we generate more electricity each year than we use, we don't only consume the electricity that we generate. Output in winter is far less than our use during that period and of course we could never run our lights at night time from our solar power. The balance of the energy used comes from other sources, which in the Netherlands mostly means gas, coal and nuclear despite our having signed up to a "green" tariff.

If everyone were to switch to driving an electric car then double the amount of electricity would be required. Not only would this require very many more generators but it would also create an expectation that vast amounts electricity ought to be available immediately to every motorist who arrives home at the end of a working day because they expect to be able to drive their car again later that evening or next morning. Unfortunately, the huge current consumption of fast charging (30 A for each Nisssan Leaf fast charger) of millions of electric cars plugged in at the end of the working day is simply not compatible with the way in which electricity is generated, at a consistent level all day through for traditional generators and when the sun shines or wind blows for renewables, and there are absolutely no viable storage technologies which could smooth this out (no, not with a battery and not with pumped storage either).

Forget about batteries
Let's re-iterate that. We can't rely on batteries because the resources don't exist on our planet to build them. Nor can we rely on such things as pumped storage because they simply don't scale. British people often like to point to the Dinorwig pumped storage facility in Wales. It's a marvelous machine and the roughly 75% efficiency is actually quite good, but its capacity is just 10 MWh which is a small fraction of the 830 MWh which the UK consumes each day. To provide enough storage to cater for seven days of normal electricity usage to allow for variations in wind strength you'll need to build another 500 of those plants. Are there 500 suitable places in the UK ? I doubt it. Add electric cars and you can double that. That's to give just a week's worth of storage. If you want to rely on solar power you actually need 6 months of storage...

The only solution is to use less electricity, especially overnight and during winter when there is less solar power and also at any time when the wind isn't blowing hard, when what we should be looking to do is to reduce electricity usage. That means not expecting to be able to charge vast numbers of electric cars.

Buses, trains and cars have quite similar energy
consumption per passenger kilometre
. There's not
much to gain by convincing people to travel by bus
or train instead of driving a car. Bicycles are
a completely different story.
What about trains or buses ?
Unfortunately, public transport such as trains and buses use a very similar amount of energy per passenger kilometre to a car. There's no substantial gain from switching from one mode to another. To reduce energy consumption and the resulting emissions caused by transport we have to fewer journeys by motorized means over shorter distances.

The Dutch railway company NS boasts of using entirely wind energy to power their trains, but this is an illusion. All that's happening is that they have signed up for a wind energy tariff. Anyone can do that. I'm sure many of my readers have already done so. We did this many years ago and when I looked into it I found out where my "green" electricity really came from.

Having a green tariff doesn't mean that your electricity genuinely comes from that source because there would then be no guarantee of supply. Dutch trains don't grind to a halt when the wind stops blowing, they simply continue to run on the same mix of electricity sources as every other electrical device in the Netherlands. i.e. 25% coal and 60% gas.

Aircraft and ships
Growth in air-transport over time.
Not only do we now use cars about 10 times more than we used to in the 1950s, but we fly about 30 times as much as we did at that time. Despite great increases in the efficiency of aircraft this has resulted in enormous growth in emissions.

Not only passenger transport, but the shipment of goods has also also grown enormously. The Berlin Airlift required an unprecedented effort by the Western Allies using military and civilian aircraft to move enough food, fuel and other supplies into Berlin to sustain the population over 15 months in 1948 - 1949 however routine civilian cargo flights now move the same weight of goods by air every four days.

The original Boeing 707 was sold in the 1950s on the basis that it consumed a tenth of the fuel per passenger km, and therefore would create about 1/10th of the CO2 emissions, compared with a contemporary ocean liner. Since that time, jet aircraft which were then a new technology have become three times more efficient while the efficiency of ships, which were already a developed technology, has not moved markedly. Anyone who travels by ship instead of by aircraft on the grounds that it's "green" has made a huge error.

The only way of reducing the emissions of your journeys is to travel less.

Ships powered by sails alone have genuinely low emissions but while there have been frequent stories over the past few decades (even so long ago as the 1920s) about new ships with sails, wings and kites, only a handful of ships have ever used these techniques to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and there are (very nearly) no sailing ships in current use for cargo or passenger travel.

Carbon offsetting doesn't work. Removing coal, gas or oil from the ground and burning it is a one-way process. Paying someone in a far off country to plant a tree does not remove CO2 from the air and put it back underground, it merely moves some amount to temporary storage in a tree. If you live in a western developed nation it's quite likely that where you live now is a place which was once a forest, or at least covered in more vegetation than you see around you. Please do plant trees as that compensates to some extent for deforestation which has already happened and continues to happen, but recognize that doing so is only replacing the trees which have already been displaced. It does not compensate for using fossil fuels.

Similarly, you can't compensate for higher usage of fossil fuels by eating a vegan diet or by not having children. Yes, it's true that both of those things will reduce your carbon footprint relative to someone who eats meat or has children, but they cannot make it it negative as would be required to compensate for burning fossil fuels.

Airlines, movie companies and other businesses have partnerships with carbon offsetting companies because it's good marketing, greenwashing a company reputation rather than actually solving a problem. We can't buy away our effect on the planet, we can only reduce our effect by consuming less.

Reduce, Re-use, Re-cycle
The Three Rs of environmentalism are supposed to be "Reduce, Re-use and Re-cycle". They're always stated in that order because "Reduce" is most important but unfortunately it's also always been the least popular suggestion of the three. Buying ever more stuff and sending it away at the end of its (short) life so that someone else hopefully will be able to recycle that stuff is not the same as buying less stuff in the first place.

Where transport emissions are concerned it's really only "Reduce" which has any relevance. The only way we can reduce our emissions through travel is to reduce the number of kilometres per year that we travel by using motorized modes of transport. Unfortunately, the pattern of the last few decades has been one of extraordinary growth with people using cars more and flying much more so that they can take holidays at greater distances from home.

Who is a "cyclist" ? As "cyclists", are we helping or hindering ?
What proportion of the distance that each of us covers each year is by bicycle ? The average Dutch person walks or cycles about 10% of their journeys by distance. Similarly, I suspect that many enthusiastic people who read this blog and identify as "cyclists" actually cover rather more distance by a mixture of car, aeroplane, bus and train than they do by bicycle. If we do that, and our cycling is actually a minority mode for us, then perhaps we should identify instead as "motorists" as the majority of our transport is actually by motorised vehicle.

I'm not getting at you, dear reader, I'm asking you to think about it. Think about your own travel patterns and those of others. I'm thinking about it. I refused an invitation to attend a cycling conference in Australia a few years ago because of the travel and more recently refused to open a cycling event in Norway for the same reason. However at the same time we've been encouraging other people to make long journeys by offering study tours. I feel that we should stop offering the tours, but people will still make those same long journeys by motorised means to visit the Netherlands or other places in order to cycle short distances.

Harvey, Irma and Jose too
On the same weekend as I wrote this, on the same weekend as
the storms continue to cause havoc, The Guardian, a relatively
enlightened UK newspaper, ran an article about the joys of
flying to New Zealand to go on a 15 km bike ride. Other
stories covered by the press include how long it will be until
flights to Florida will be able to resume. Are we going to
continue to ignore the problem that we're creating ?
While it's impossible to say that the storms which are currently affecting millions of peoples' lives are directly the result of man-made climate change, it's widely accepted that even if they are not so caused, climate change will certainly have made their effects worse.

The people affected by these storms are suffering at present and we can all do a little to help. In the Netherlands, the Rode Kruis is organising a help effort. Give what you can, but think also about how your personal behaviour can influence future weather patterns.

None of us can continue with "business as usual". So far as transport is concerned, and transport is the subject of this blog, we need to reduce how much we use all motorised modes. Cycling can't "offset" motoring. It can't "offset" the burning of fossil fuels and there are no motorized modes which don't use fossil fuels. Are we, every one of us, individually, part of the solution or part of the problem ?

This blog post is based in large part on a presentation which I made in Assen in January. If you wish, you can read the original slides and a version of some of the text of that presentation.


Cycling in Edmonton from the Eyes of a Teen said...

This is why I'm much more genuinely interested in places that generate nearly all of their power by renewable means. BC and Quebec both almost 100% get their power from hydroelectric dams to the point that an electricity bill is known as a hydro bill. Those come with their own problems like fish migration patterns, but very few places are anywhere even remotely close to a third of their power needs like this.

If you were going to buy a new vehicle anyway, maybe some company needs to get a van to deliver their couches to people, then that's fine to me, especially if they live in a place like the aforementioned BC or Quebec. But for others, it's not worth switching.

There are some meaningful things one can do with fuel like purchasing it from a cooperative, as I do on the occasion I need fuel, but another thing that people don't tend to see if the way this props up many authoritarian countries. Not just the Saudis and Maduro's government in Venezuela, but places like the DR Congo and Azerbaijan. I looked at the number of people who live in a place where oil, gas, and coal made up a large part of the state's budget and found that it totals over a billion people living in them combined and if their economic base was destroyed via renewable sources, and added to the existing democracies in the world, almost the entire world would be covered with the exception of China and some countries that rely on making textiles like Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as places where non corporate patent controlled genetic modification and empowering farmers with free communication would help to liberate them.

That would be a truly massive change for the world, to see Africa and the Middle East as a place of hope and progress much more than it may be today like in Botswana, Rojava, and Tunisia, people might actually care about countries not their own.

malanlewis said...

Excellent post, an outstanding explanation of sensible transportation.

I hope you have continued your non-automative transportation preference, as has my wife and I (we're 72 and 68 respectively). We travel almost exclusively on foot. I bicycle occasionally, when we need something in a timely manner, or when I need to move something heavy in my bike trailer. We use public transportation when we need to travel more than 5-6 miles. We live on the Central Coast of California and we can walk to all our needs, within 2.5 miles of home, year round.

Whether or not human fossil fuel consumption affects natural climate variation in any measurable way, reducing consumption, and reducing human population, are essential for life on a living planet of finite resources. Walking and bicycling as the core means of transportation in a bioregionally organized community, living within natural cycles of resource availability, consuming no more than is naturally replenished and producing no more waste than is naturally assimilated. This the only sane and viable human society possible.

Thank you for your articulating your approach to sensible human transportation.

Sam said...

I agree you're right to point out the very many weaknesses in most 'green' transport claims and alternatives.

For the extra electricity used by electric cars, it doesn't seem you factored in the reduction in energy used for refining of petrol. From what sparse info I've come across it seems that petrol production is so energy intensive that charging electric cars is likely to roughly break even in overall energy demand. There is also the significant point that the electricity for EVs can, and increasingly will, be generated by renewables, whereas burning fuel in engines is unlikely to get very much cleaner.

I'm hardly advocating for EVs any more than saying they are better than the alternative for when motorised vehicles are needed, and fully agree that the real solution is to use many fewer of them much less, but on energy use alone I believe they do have some up sides.

(My recent take on the same area... )

Andy said...

I agree with a lot of this, but I don't think it's accurate to state that cycling produces 0 g of CO2 per kilometer, nor that it doesn't require extra food to cycle. It's far less CO2 than any of the other choices, of course, but it's easy to estimate the amount.

The effect might be zero only if two things are true:

- you're cycling just enough to maintain your health, and no more
- cycling is preventing you from gaining weight eating the amount of food you would anyway

Neither is true for me. In fact, I eat lunch only on days I cycle to work, otherwise I skip it. This costs me about the same as gasoline costs me on days I drive the car. If I ate less, while cycling the ~120 miles a week I currently do, I'd lose weight quickly, and I have none to lose.

Andy said...

Okay, just a quick estimate to compare with the ~10 kg CO2 per 64 km you show for the two Minis and the Leaf.

Per Bicycle Science (Wilson, 3rd edition) table 2.1, a touring cyclist at 12 MPH (19 km/h) is putting out 82 W but burning 420 W metabolically, consuming 1.2 L/min of oxygen. If he were at rest, he'd be burning 98 W metabolically, consuming 0.28 L/min of oxygen. The difference, then, is 0.92 L/min of oxygen.

It would take 3h20m, or 200 minutes, to travel the 64 km, so that's 184 L of extra oxygen burned.

Standard density of oxygen is 1.43 kg/m³ (or g/L) so that's 260 g of excess oxygen consumed. Each gram of oxygen (O2) becomes (44/16) grams if CO2, so the final result is 720 g, or 0.72 kg, of CO2 per 64 km traveled.

That's about 0.72%, or 1/14 of what the cars produce. More efficient cyclist (either slower, or using a velomobile) will produce less. Powerful cyclists on unfaired bicycles could produce several times more.

David Hembrow said...

Edmonton: Not all countries can possibly power themselves with hydroelectric power. For instance, the Netherlands doesn't have any sites for large scale hydro. What's more, in most countries where there is large scale hydro, growth is limited in scope because the best places were taken first and remaining places may be less useful.

We're looking at doubling electrical energy consumption by adopting electric cars. More generation will be required and it will be difficult for countries which currently have a high percentage of hydro-electric power to maintain that high percentage.

Also, the carbon footprint of hydro-electric power is not zero.

Malan: We travel absolutely as much as possible by human power. All local journeys are walked or by bike, we have bike trailers and a cargo bike for larger objects (we transport all the packages used in our business this way) and we make few longer journeys. It's good to hear that you're also trying to minimise your impact.

Sam: Petrol production is doubtless energy intensive. Mind you, so is processing nuclear fuel, digging up coal, building wind turbines and production of lithium batteries. It's very difficult to have anything like a complete understanding of any of these things.

One of the main problems with trying to power EVs with renewables is that the nature of wind and solar is that they're only available when they're available, and that production can't be ramped up suddenly to cope with everyone wanting to fast charge at once when they arrive home from work. You can't level out the demand with any kind of battery because storage on anything but a small scale is basically impossible at the moment (see blog post above).

And of course, it's just fine having a fractionally more efficient vehicle (even quite a bit fraction) unless there is growth in their use, in which case you still end up with growth in energy demand.

I like your blog post. You've covered many of the same things as I have and also several completely different things so I recommend that others who read this also read your post.

David Hembrow said...

Andy: Excellent work with the calculation. Even at 1/14th there's the fact that humans still need to eat and breath and require some exercise above standing still in order to be healthy.

You asked about why I said that you didn't need to eat anything extra to cycle. This is based on the average person's travel patterns. Most journeys, world-wide, are over easily cycle-able distances over which the total amount of extra energy required is really not significant.

Your 120 miles per week is significantly more than the amount that average person would have to cycle. On a racing bike, riding at 82 W as you suggest, 120 miles is enough to get through an extra 2500 kcal (calculator). So yes, you'd need to each an additional day's food per week, or spread over the whole week an additional 400 kcal per day over what is actually required to have a healthy weight. Hopefully not too many people already eat 400 kcal a day extra which they never burn off, but I'm sure some do.

But most people's commutes are not that long. For a distance of 5 miles a day the extra food required is only a little about 100 kcal. Given that waistlines are expanding across the world I would say that the average person in most western nations already eats more than enough to cover 5 miles a day of cycling. That's why cycling ends up having zero impact for most people. Well, no zero impact, but actually a very positive impact on their health. But not very positive because 82 W is not very strenuous and even at that rate covering 5 miles takes less than 30 minutes, so actually this isn't even enough exercise to be healthy.

If we instead use the calculator to work out how far we'd travel if we took 30 minutes at 150 W (which is still not really strenuous) then get an answer of about 13 km / 8 miles of commuting each day requiring consumption of about 250 kcal of food per day. That's about what's recommended to keep oneself healthy so I think that is where we should say the break even point is, where the zero consumption point is, before we start talking about the cyclist consuming anything extra at all.

Incidentally, I think I used to cycle commute the same distance as you. I also needed to eat a bit more at that time.

Andy said...

Thanks for responding, David. My commute is actually only around nine miles each way, and I do it 4 days a week, so that's only 72 miles a week. The other half is generally going to my martial arts classes, grocery and other stores, and bars/restaurants, with an occasional recreational ride. I'm in suburbia in a mid-sized American city, so there's really not much walkable. It's either cycle or drive to the vast majority of my destinations. Well, there's a bus system of sorts, but I will always be faster than it cycling.

Kevin Love said...

David wrote: "I feel that we should stop offering the tours"

Kevin's comment: Please keep offering them. The only way that things are going to change is if people can see for themselves how to change them for the better. This blog and the experience of being in The Netherlands when I was in the Canadian Army have radically changed my viewpoint on transportation and how to build a liveable city.

I live in the city of Hamilton, Ontario, population 550,000. Hamilton City Council has appointed me to its Citizens' Advisory Committee for cycling, where we are successfully pushing to change the City along Dutch lines. It helps that the Mayor is an immigrant from The Netherlands.

I personally would like to take your Study Tour one day, because one can always learn more. That learning, by myself and others, is a key part of transforming the world to make it better.

Gentsracer 1 said...

Excellent post.
However, isn't the verdict concerning public transport a bit harsh? Of course for the time being they're not really much more efficient than cars, but they're only occupied at around 25-30% on average. If something is done to really discourage car use, that would go up, and public transport become much more efficient.

David Hembrow said...

Kevin: Thanks for your kind comment. It's good to hear that you managed to make some positive change locally.

Gentsracer1: Increasing occupancy would improve the efficiency of public transport, but I don't think this nearly enough. Halving emissions per passenger km or even reducing them to a quarter is of little effect use when our patterns of use are of constant growth. All that improved efficiency can achieve is putting back the inevitable by a short period of time. In order to make a real change we have to stop travelling by non sustainable means, and that requires a huge change in behaviour.

While we like to think of ourselves as relatively "green" these days, our patterns of behaviour are far more problematic than those of people who lived 50 years ago. for example, we used less electricity before low energy light bulbs had been invented than we do now because we have so many more electrically powered devices. Of course, dreaming of what we did then is only of limited use because that wasn't sustainable either.

I believe that we need to create a new future starting now which embraces new inventions while encouraging a limit in our consumption to what is sustainable. That means using less energy, including much less powered travel. Merely substituting one powered mode for another (e.g. bus vs. car) doesn't achieve this.

Richard Adamfi said...

"Halving emissions per passenger km or even reducing them to a quarter is of little effect use when our patterns of use are of constant growth."

In that case, surely a key component in reducing environmental damage has to be for people to stop having children? Thus no more growth. You do make a passing reference to it in the post and this is rarely mentioned by green activists yet is easiest to achieve as a population reduction of 50% would reduce the problem by half even if people don't give up cars, electrical goods, flying etc.

David Hembrow said...

Richard: Endless population growth obviously also cannot continue but it's far too simple to suggest that halving the population would resolve the problem. Even with half the population the existing rate of energy consumption is unsustainable that doesn't take account of the rise in average use.

The growth in energy consumption in western nations has little to do with the birth rate. I'll use the Netherlands as an example as that's where I live now: The average fertility rate of Dutch women has been less than 2 children per woman since 1973. The population has grown by about 20% over the same period, largely due to better health and longer life expectancy. Over the same period, electricity consumption has tripled and the distance travelled by car each year has also almost tripled.

The trend of rising energy consumption and travel is causing far more of a problem than population at the moment. Even if you removed half of the population overnight, leading to a population much lower than that in the 1970s, overall consumption would still be somewhat higher and it would still be growing. All that would have been achieved is a slight hiccup on what would still be an upward path.

On average we all need to consume less energy and especially we need to travel less. This works regardless of the population and is required regardless of what happens in future with the population.

johni said...

Hi Richard, I agree that population reduction (or at least a reduction in population growth rate) is the most effective way to address this problem (and a huge number of other problems that exist in the world). Of course this should be voluntary. One of the best ways of achieving it (as has been shown in many studies) is to ensure women get access to a good education.

Gentsracer 1 said...

David, are you aware of the french 'Scenario Negawatt'?
To your mind, is this realistic (regardless of the political will to implement it which may or may not exist)?

David Hembrow said...

Gentsracer1: There are several ideas on the negawatt website, some of which have more validity than others IMO. I think there's a gulf between their aims and the way they want to achieve them and some degree of wishful thinking.

They rely a lot on biomass (40% of energy supply in their 2050 scenario) but I don't think biomass is working out to be as benign as is often assumed. One of the reasons why the UK now claims much lower carbon emissions than before is that power stations which previously ran on coal now run on biomass, but the fuel is being shipped from the USA using fossil fuels. I'm not the only one to question this.

They suggest storage of electricity as methane or hydrogen. I think this is more likely to be possible than use of batteries, because it doesn't require use of more resources than exist on the planet. I think it'll be a part of the future energy supply because it's a very good way of using up excess electricity when there's "too much" wind or sun. However it's not something which has yet been achieved on more than a small scale, and it's very inefficient.

I suspect France will still have nuclear power stations in 2050. I'm not enthusiastic about nuclear power, but it does provide base load supply rather well.

Gentsracer 1 said...

Thank you.
Not much hope then. We're looking at a scale of change necessary on every level, that's unlikely to ever happen.