The Emperor’s New Car: why electric cars won’t solve energy issues

“In 21st century consumer culture, even ostensibly useful items like running shoes and cars are frequently replaced, not because they are worn out, but because they no longer produce sufficient gratification in the form of status or novelty.” [The Emperor’s New Car]

A car buyer’s guide is not where I expected to find penetrating analysis of western consumer culture, but that is what The Dog and Lemon Guide’s editor Clive Matthew-Wilson has provided. The Emperor’s New Car is a critique of the economic and environmental value of electric cars and Matthew-Wilson gets to the root of the problem: it is our lifestyle killing the planet not petrol-fuelled cars. Electric cars improve air quality, reduce traffic noise, reduce reliance on oil from politically volatile countries, reduce emissions (if using electricity from renewable sources) and may be more fuel efficient. But there are negatives: most electricity is produced from fossil fuels, electric cars are less efficient than mass public transit, there is a serious shortage of accessible energy, private cars are an unsustainable transport model, and they are being financed with taxpayers’ money as a bailout of car companies. The oil shortage, Matthew-Wilson says, is an energy shortage. This is worsened by energy wastage and resulting pollution. The West’s energy lifestyle relies on the East staying poor and undeveloped. A quarter of the world uses 85 percent of its resources. The world does not the resources, renewable or otherwise, to spread the West’s lavish lifestyle across the globe.Car ownership is embedded in western culture and with it an illusory sense of freedom. The electric car cannot solve US energy and pollution problems because the private car is not the biggest waster of energy in America. That honour goes to homes – mostly poorly designed and poorly insulated, far from services and full of gadgets that are an energy sink. Worldwide the demand from gadgets will require building of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants. While experts promote mandatory efficiency rules, no one is advocating restraint in purchases of consumer electronics.

Shipping is also a problem. Sixteen cargo ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world. The problem, the report says, is not the car but a package deal of wasteful cars, wasteful suburbs based around cars and a wasteful society based around consumption, with the car the most obvious symbol of waste. “Changing the way that American cars are powered will not solve the built-in problems of the American system of over-consumption,” Matthew-Wilson said.

Global materialism is compounded by energy wastage. China’s growth and demand for energy will outstrip any environmental gains in the West. The West’s consumption has fed the Chinese boom. China’s vast underground coal fires make an enormous, hidden contribution to global warming annually releasing 360 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to all the cars and light trucks in the US.

The report also side-tracks into the dangers of WalMart car parks, the US diet and excess consumption. The conclusion is straight-forward and unpalatable: the only way a society hooked on excess energy consumption can solve the problem is to reduce energy consumption to a sustainable level. The electric car movement, said Matthew-Wilson, is based around the falsehood it is possible to continue the American car-based lifestyle of the twentieth century by changing the form of energy used to power it. His report is a clear-eyed and compelling prescription for societal change.


One thought on “The Emperor’s New Car: why electric cars won’t solve energy issues

  1. Finally an article getting to the bottom of this issue.

    The whole world seems to be so gung-ho about electric cars – as if buying one will automatically give us a green pass into heaven.

    Rising oil prices may not be good news, but that can have one good effect, getting us out of our cars, walking or cycling down to the shops, and improving the investment potential for pubic transport. That’s the transition we have to make.

    Buying electric cars may slightly improve out greenhouse footprint (and even that is questionable) but their worst aspect is that they keep the dream alive that we can and must keep our grossly wasteful transport mode – built around private vehicle use.

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