What’s the Future for Electric Vehicles?


The petrol-fuelled motor vehicle kills and maims our children, clogs ups our streets, pollutes the air we breathe and contributes to global warming.

Is the electric vehicle (EV) therefore a possible solution to reduce the environmental impact of road transport?

A number of different categories of EV currently exist. These include ‘plug-in’ EVs which like other domestic appliances require you to plug them in to recharge the battery. Some EVs are solely dependent on the battery as its main source of power. In these vehicles if you don’t use heating or air conditioning and drive sensibly you can travel up 80 -120 miles.

If you wanted more certainty in driving then ‘plug-in’ hybrids allow you to switch between electric or traditional fuel.

These tend to have smaller batteries which means you can only undertake electric travel for about 10-40 miles. Hybrid EVs tend to have a smaller battery which is charged while driving and can therefore be used only over short distances.

The Toyota Pirus is a successful example of a hybrid. Although it has been referred to as the ‘hippie car’ it has been the car of choice for a number of Hollywood celebrities. Finally, there are fuel-cell vehicles which generate their own on-board electricity by using fuels such as hydrogen and therefore do not need to be plugged-in.

Although the UK EV market is the early stages of development, the government’s Committee on Climate Change recommends we should aim to have 1.7 million EVs on the road by 2020 if progress is be made towards achieving the national target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Battery operated EVs tend to be more energy efficient when in use as 80% of the stored energy goes to driving wheels. This is compared to cars with internal combustion engines which are about 20% efficient with most of the energy lost as heat.

Although when loss from energy generation is considered, the energy efficiency of EVs is reduced. On the whole carbon emissions from driving EVs are comparable with the most efficient diesel cars and are about 30% less than the average for new fossil fuel cars.

In addition, EVs produce no tail-pipe emissions when in electric mode so poor air quality will not be experienced in congested urban areas. This is particularly important for large urban conurbations which are grappling with high levels of vehicle-related particulate matter and nitrogen oxides emissions that exceed EU limits.

In London an estimated 4,000 extra deaths occur each year due to airborne particulates costing up to £20 billion a year – twice the cost of obesity. EVs contribute less to noise pollution as they are much quieter that traditional cars – perhaps a reason why many milk floats were battery operated in the heyday of doorstep milk delivery. However, concerns have been raised with regard to pedestrian safety especially of the visually impaired.

The Toyota Pirus

So is the EV a greener option? Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology undertook a life cycle assessment of the EV and highlighted the ‘toxicity’ of EV manufacturing process compared to conventional vehicles (e.g. extraction of minerals for the battery).

They calculated that the ‘global warming potential’ of manufacturing is about twice as high as conventional vehicles. They argue that promotion of EVs does not make sense in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal and lignite combustion.

We still have a long way to go before the EV is seen as desirable option by the majority. The public image of EVs needs to be improved and recharging infrastructure needs to be targeted, convenient and safe. For example, the majority of recharging taking place at home, at night, after the peak in electricity demand as well at the workplace for commuters and these need to be available. We also need to understand how to reduce environmental impact of the EV manufacturing process and improve battery recycling.

Until we are able to make a significant shift to renewable energy sources, EVs are simply a means of reducing roadside emissions rather than global emissions. Improvements in technology will inevitably improve the environmental credentials of EVs.

In the short term emission savings in transport are likely to come from better efficiency of conventional vehicles. Walking, cycling and public transport also have a role to play as well as reducing the need to travel in the first place.

© Gary Haq 2013

Is Clean Air Bad for the Planet?

HEALTH damaging particles in polluting gases emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating have a ‘cooling’ effect on the climate. In reducing local air pollution we are lowering this cooling effect and inadvertently accelerating global warming. Is clean air bad for the planet?

Gary Haq HEALTH damaging particles in polluting gases emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating have a ‘cooling’ effect on the climate. In reducing local air pollution we are lowering this cooling effect and inadvertently accelerating global warming. Is clean air bad for the planet?
The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil emit gases with small particles known as aerosols. These aerosols include PM10 and sulphates and are found in motor vehicle emissions as well as industrial and domestic heat emissions. They have been linked to asthma, heart problems, lung cancer and premature death as well as having an impact on ecosystems. Aerosols influence the nature of clouds and play a key role in reflecting incoming solar radiation and reducing temperatures at the earth’s surface. They mask the earth from the effects of global warming. While there is still scientific uncertainty about the contribution of this group of air pollutants to ‘climate cooling’ there is an urgent need to reduce the concentrations of these small particles to protect human health and environment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that outdoor air pollution is responsible for 600,000 premature deaths worldwide each year. Britain is one of ten European Union member states that have recently been warned over excessive levels of PM10. The UK together with Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden could face court action if it fails to meet a European directive limiting these harmful airborne particles. In particular, developing cities in Asia and Africa are struggling with a rapid growth in traffic, urban expansion and industrial development. This has resulted in high levels of polluting air emissions and poor air quality.

Gary Haq In many large Asian cities you will find street hawkers sitting beside strategic road junctions experiencing the general hustle and bustle of daily life. However these individuals are being exposed to high concentrations of motor vehicle pollutants increasing the risk of developing respiratory disease and cancer. Children ill with respiratory disease caused by exposure to high concentrations of air pollutants will be children that will not learn very well, will suffer in adult life from low levels of qualifications and skills which in turn has implications for their quality of life and the economic development of the country as a whole.

The issue of local environmental quality versus global environmental pollution poses an interesting ethical dilemma. Policies to reduce local air pollution such as improving vehicle technology, installing clean technologies in polluting industrial plants and introducing low-sulphur fuels will protect the health of many urban residents. However, by reducing aerosols emissions we are reducing their climate cooling effect. This could speed up global warming and climate change and thus threatens the lives of 7 billion people on the planet.

Gary HaqIf we are to avoid the inadvertent warming resulting from a reduction in PM10 and sulphate aerosols then we need to reduce ‘short-lived’ climate warming gases. That is the view of the Global Atmospheric Pollution Forum – an international partnership of governmental and non-governmental organisations that address air pollution. Unlike carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for up to 100 hundred years, black carbon, ground-level ozone and methane are substances that have a relatively short-life in the atmosphere, lasting from days to weeks in the case of ozone and black carbon and for a decade with regard to methane. Black carbon is emitted from diesel engines, while ground-level ozone is produced from the reaction of gases from vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and chemical solvents. These pollutants are both local air pollutants as well as climate warming gases. While methane is an ingredient needed for the formation of ground-level ozone. Therefore decreasing the concentrations of these gases by cutting emissions could produce relatively quick climate results. This would counteract the cooling effect caused by a reduction in other pollutants such as PM10 and sulphates needed to protect human health. Measures to reduce concentrations of ground-level ozone, black carbon and methane must be pursued alongside cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. This approach should to be addressed in future climate change negotiations. A global assessment of short-lived pollutants is required to feed into the policy process.

It is clear air pollution and climate change are intimately linked with regard to sources and effects on human health and environment. Actions taken to reduce emissions of traditional pollutants may increase or decrease emissions of greenhouse gases. Likewise, strategies to reduce greenhouse gases can have positive or negative effects on air pollution. If we are to develop effective air pollution prevention policies then we to need an integrated approach to address both local air pollution and climate change. This means abandoning the traditional view of the environment as being made up of separate parts and treating it as a functioning interrelated system.

By taking a holistic view of air pollution and climate change we can ensure that clean air will never be bad for the planet.

© Gary Haq 2009