Thursday, April 16, 2009

Beep, beep! Off the road Brown

The front page of the Guardian today tells me that Brown's government has swooped into action and has made a move that will end up "slashing the UK's CO2 emissions". All the more impressive is that these proposals are just one "part of a £250m strategy" - now that's cheap!

Oh... It's electric cars. Bugger.

How's this CO2 slash-a-thon going to work then? £100 million is going direct to the car industry for research. I'm not grumbling about that although a bit more detail might be nice, like how are these private companies accountable... but lets leave that to one side for today.

The other £150 million, or part of it anyway, is to become a £5,000 a pop incentive to buy electric or mainly electric cars. Which could be 30,000 new owners if there aren't any other costs apart from writing out cheques - which doesn't seem realistic. In 2006 there were, apparently, 26,208,000 cars on the road and I'm going to assume that's the right ball park for today.

Maths man says: If we have total take up of the scheme, which miraculously has no administrative or infrastructure costs, we will see 0.1% of cars on the road become electric over some undetermined time scale.

Now, considering these cars aren't even low carbon, I think the government's done pretty well to get a Guardian front page claiming the move will end up "slashing the UK's CO2 emissions" don't you? You might even call it greenwash if you were that sort of ungrateful wretch who spits in the face of those promoting electric cars.

It seems particularly good publicity for the scheme when you consider that, according to The Times, "No electric car that is available now, or for at least the next two years, will qualify for government grants of up to £5,000" oh, err, um, that's quite bad isn't it? Doesn't that mean the Guardian's just given a front page over to praising a government eco-initiative that is completely meaningless?

Professor John Whitelegg, who knows about these things, says that "It was always disingenuous to put a greenish tinge on the Budget. But with the climate crisis deepening, anything less than a solid commitment to a very low-carbon future is downright irresponsible." I think that's spot on - pretending to be green is worse than not even bothering.

"But Jimmy boy" you say, "there are also local initiatives, you have to factor those in too." Well, I'm glad you asked actually because what the national government is doing is very close to what the esteemed London Mayor is up to. Last week Boris announced that he wanted to see 100,000 electric cars flood the streets of London. Now, targeted in one city this is very significant indeed.

I'd like to congratulate Johnson on this ambitious target. I'd like to, but I can't. It's clearly balls.

I don't know what the official London Green Party response to this was but he thinks he can do this with 60 million quid. That's £600 per vehicle. Now, this is either going to be the most cost effective transport scheme in world history *or* he intends to use the money to buy magic beans with which to grow the eco-vehicles. I know which one is more likely knowing our Mr Mayor.

The thing is that without significant investment in infrastructure, like a national network of recharge points, electric cars don't look brilliantly attractive to the consumer and, as they are only as green as the source they get the power from unless we have a considerable shift towards renewable power you don't even get that good a carbon saving.

But perhaps there is something deeper that is wrong with the scheme. Is the best way of reducing traffic emissions making less carbon unfriendly vehicles?

Don't get me wrong - I'm for efficiency savings and eco-vehicles (particularly bicycles) but as the ever excellent Mr Monbiot points out "Yet again, our money is being channelled into cars rather than any other form of transport. The government uses the terms low-carbon transport and low-carbon vehicles interchangeably. But they are not the same thing. The most cost-effective measures for reducing fossil fuel use have nothing to do with cars."

We need a fundamental commitment to our railway network that reduces the ludicrous cost and considerably improves its reliability. We need to popularise and facilitate cycling with dedicated cycle routes and improved planning around cycle lanes. I'd swap New Labour's £5,000 a car deal for a £100 cycle subsidy any day of the week.

There are also a whole number of what look like side issues but have a considerable impact on the level of congestion on our roads. Can people afford to live near where they work? Are we promoting flexible working that allows people to avoid the traffic jams of rush hour? Questions that are difficult to answer and impossible to turn into "aren't we eco" press release but have the potential to really transform transportation in this country if we can address them.

I know it's terribly churlish to turn your nose up when the government says it's going to do a nice thing but seeing as it wont work, even in its own terms is massively overblown and amounts to green spin without effecting emissions insignificantly, let alone significantly, I don't have the heart to even mumble a half hearted "thanks".


Joe Otten said...

I think if no existing cars qualify, that's a good thing - if that means the electric/hybrid cars have to be significantly better than today's hybrids, before they qualify. (And a Prius is only fractionally more efficient than a petrol Toyota Aygo/Citroen C1)

The biggest problem with this kind of subsidy is the deadweight cost. Many of these vehicles would be sold anyway. Prices can be increased to suck out the subsidy. The only real value to be had is if the incentive causes the car company to develop a better car - in which case they are welcome to the subsidy.

Whether it will actually work like this, is another matter.

James said...

I'd go for "usually excellent" with Moonboot after all his nuclear shenanigans. And I personally fancy a Tesla Roadster. But yes, other than that..