Flabber-gassed by our noxious air: can electric vehicles save us?
Shayne MacLachlan, OECD Environment Directorate
Paris is a beautiful city but has an ugly problem with air pollution. Using 2 wheels to get to work, one becomes acutely aware of this insidious addiction to cars, and the “essence” of the problem, DIESEL. Queuing at the red lights (which unlike many Parisians I observe) sucking up the carcinogenic fumes, should I feel happy or sad knowing that those in the cars themselves are getting a worse dose of “the product” than those using greener ways to get about? Switching to electric vehicles could save some lives and certainly might help the French public purse as the health, economic and financial damages of air pollution are costing the country an estimated EUR 100 billion per year.
Commendable effort, limited results
It’s not like Paris hasn’t made a huge effort to reduce air pollutants like benzene, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone and fine particles PM2.5 and PM10. Over the last 10 years it has put in place the Vélib bicycle system, the electric car equivalent Autolib, constructed bus lanes that can be shared by cyclists, closed roads and built car-annoying pedestrian crossings in an effort to encourage cleaner mobility. The speed limit on the périphérique (ring-road) has been reduced to 70kph and it is even letting cyclists run (certain) red lights. Paris is banning trucks and dirty diesel cars during certain hours in the city. Although there have been some improvements, the level of NO2 (although not all comes from dirty transport) in parts of Paris during 2015 regularly exceeded 100µg/m3 and averaged 66µg/m3 over the year which is way above the EU limit of 40µg/m3.
So why the foul air?
Paris is teeming with 4-wheeled vehicles but many city residents don’t actually own cars. If you look at the number plates of the vehicles clogging and gassing the streets, many of them come from “les banlieues”, or suburbs around the city. Even though the trains are very reliable and generally run on time (except from September-December which is strike season), it seems that for many, the comfort and practicality of the car is just too much to sacrifice. This choice often means you’ll be stuck in kilometres of traffic every morning and evening, but it seems drivers can’t give up their personal space with their tunes, make-up kits and phone conversations all to themselves.
Time for a pit-stop switch
So if we can’t forego this crooked comfort, we need a MASSIVE switch to electric vehicles (EVs). France wants to have two million EVs on the road by 2020 but currently just over 1% of new vehicles in France are electric. In Norway, it’s 13%. Cheap oil isn’t helping us switch to electric, but we must stop subsidising diesel to make dirtier vehicles much more expensive to run. Officials in France recently agreed that diesel taxes will increase, and those on gasoline will fall, “to neutralise the difference” in the next 5-7 years. It has taken a while for the light to turn green, but for the residents of Paris and other French cities, this is welcome news.
Purchase price and low fuel costs matter
In 2012, the ITF (International Transport Forum) reported that battery electric vehicles cost €4-5K more to their owners than an equivalent fossil-fuel car over the vehicle’s lifetime. A friend of mine was buying a car a little while back. I asked him why he didn’t go electric and I got a gruff response “it’s out of my budget range”. This is in spite of a healthy government rebate of up to EUR 10k for some EV switches. Studies have found that among the most important incentives to buying EVs are purchase price and low fuel costs. Even with purchase bonuses, the pricing of new EVs means they are still not a viable alternative for many. There could be other reasons too for the slow EV take-up such as the insufficient battery charging infrastructure, the time taken to charge a vehicle when compared to filling up at the gas station and annoying distance limitations. Some drivers are also concerned about whether the power used to charge their EV is coming from renewable or fossil-fuelled sources, and what the batteries are made from and how they are disposed of.
Driving the point home
While governments must hammer down the purchase price of cleaner vehicles with even healthier financial enticements, strong disincentives such as imposing a London- or Milan-style congestion charge for high-polluting vehicles may also push consumers to switch. Add toll-free roads, access to bus lanes and lower registration fees for EVs to the list, and they might look a whole lot more attractive. And with the recent VWgate emissions scandal leaving a sulphuric taste in diesel owners’ mouths, one asks whether it’s not the ideal time to make diesel the new public enemy number one, as we’ve done with our ex-friend coal.
Off and running
So as I finish up this morning’s “blog/moaning session” and run off for some lunchtime exercise, (wondering how long before I cough up a chunk of coal) it seems that the checkered flag is a long way off for successful policies that ditch dirty vehicles and encourage a massive switch to EVs. An even bigger “helping hand” for new EV purchases, along with a tailored package of carrots and sticks, may help reduce my flabber-gas and boost our life-expectancy by a few years. Failing all of that, more of us could work from home but that sounds like a good topic for another time.