Mike Robinson: Road to a low-carbon future demands electric vehicles

Go Ultra Low Nissan LEAF (L) and Kia Soul EV (R) on charge on a London street. Ultra-low emission vehicles such as this can cost as little as 2p per mile to run and some electric cars and vans have a range of up to 700 miles.
Go Ultra Low Nissan LEAF (L) and Kia Soul EV (R) on charge on a London street. Ultra-low emission vehicles such as this can cost as little as 2p per mile to run and some electric cars and vans have a range of up to 700 miles.
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Geography is concerned with understanding what shapes and influences the world we live in. RSGS is particularly concerned with helping find and deliver pragmatic solutions to the most pressing national and global geographical issues, and that includes the sustainability of transport. Currently our fastest-growing source of emissions is transport, especially road transport. We need solutions; electric vehicles are a central component of that solution.

Every forecast of low carbon living I have seen says we should completely decarbonise our road and rail transport systems, that we need electric vehicles. This is not to say we can then carry on driving as much as before – we do need to be more careful with everything. But running ultra-low emission vehicles instead of fossil fuel ones is a hugely welcome and positive step.

However, people are not switching. There are 2.6 million vehicles on our roads in Scotland, whereas total new car sales every year amount to around 130,000 so if 100 per cent of new car sales were electric it would take 20 years to replace the whole fleet. Electric vehicle sales in 2016 in Scotland were 132 (0.1 per cent of new car sales). At the current rates it would take closer to 200 years to replace all our vehicles with electric.

The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Delivery Plan proposal to increase electric car sales to 40 per cent of new car sales is a good first step. It does lack detail, and does not specify what government will do to help bring this transformation about. It clearly is not happening at the moment, but it is a laudable direction of travel, even if it does not go far enough.

Some environmentalists have been slow to back this call, though, as they see the use of electric vehicles as a technical solution, which doesn’t address the underlying need to reduce demand.

In the sense it uses technology, it is of course a tech solution. But isn’t that true of, say, wind turbine tech for generating wind-power? Or solar photovoltaic cells for creating solar energy? Tech solutions should not be our solve-all,undermining the need for people to take some responsibility, reduce their demand and be more frugal with energy generally. However, to dismiss all tech responses to climate change in this way is unhelpful, it seems to suggest that electric vehicles are somehow as insidious as, say, some of the off-the-wall geo-engineering solutions, like seeding iron into the oceans or covering the arctic in reflective sheeting.

Ultimately we need to travel less to reduce fossil fuel use. Meantime, we need to reduce the carbon impact of travel, and electric vehicles are an essential part of that bigger solution. Technology remains a legitimate response to climate change, alongside behaviour change and efficiency.

How much and how risky that tech needs to be largely depends on how receptive we are to cutting back our emissions, and how urgently we choose to act. And how quickly we adopt some of the simpler actions, like electric vehicles.

l Mike Robinson is Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society