Why electric vehicles aren’t the simple solution to the climate crisis - Rachael Murphy

Transport accounted for around a third of all pollutants in the UK last year, with private cars being the main offenders.

Co Wheels has become the UK’s largest community interest car club operator.
Co Wheels has become the UK’s largest community interest car club operator.

So, any successful attempt to deliver the promises of COP26 and hit net zero emissions within a generation – which all UK devolved governments and most Scottish local authorities are signed up to –depends heavily on addressing the role of private vehicles.

Persuading the public to transition from petrol and diesel cars to electric alternatives has long been talked up as a silver bullet.

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Certainly, electric vehicles are far better for the environment, and they tend to be newer and have all the attractions of a modern motor, and all with ranges which are increasing dramatically.

But they are no less guilty of causing congestion and the manufacturing process is just as environmentally unfriendly.

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There’s also the question of charging infrastructure.

The Scottish Government is right to have set a target to phase out new petrol and diesel cars by 2032, but if all of Scotland two and a half million cars are replaced with EVs, the draw on the grid, the infrastructure and the cost are going to be enormous.

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There’s also an affordability barrier, with it still being noticeably more expensive to buy an electric car than one powered by traditional sources.

So why accept the status quo, that we need to replace these cars like for like, when whatever environmental mitigation EVs can offer, still won’t be enough to make the changes needed in the time we have?

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The whole transport infrastructure needs to be revolutionised to make the necessary difference - it’s not just about reducing particular emissions from particular vehicles.

It’s about changing behaviours, improving the way people move around, and creating ways to enhance cities, towns and villages, and the methods by which we connect them.

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After all, simply substituting petrol and diesel cars for electric alternatives won’t address problems with congestion, parking and safety.

This is where shared transport comes into play.

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If we persuade people out of their private cars, the obstacles around chargepoint infrastructure, cost and electricity supply will be easier to overcome.

Despite challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, the number of people signed up to car clubs schemes rose to 30,617 in 2020 – a rise of more than a fifth.

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That alone resulted in 5,177 fewer cars on Scotland’s roads.

For every car club vehicle on the road, a further ten private cars are taken off the road.

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That means less congestion on the road and Fewer cars mean more space on pavements and outside shops and schools – all important areas which many communities are keen to reclaim.

And these vehicles are more likely to be electric – such as the all-electric car club introduced in Falkirk last month and managed by Co Wheels.

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Those involved in car clubs are also more likely to walk and cycle, and by giving up ownership of a private car to join a car club, there are significant financial savings to be made too.

At Collaborative Mobility UK (CoMoUK), we want to see these social, environmental and community benefits in every part of Scotland. To make this a possibility, we want car clubs, bike sharing, shared rides and demand responsive transport, across rural, island, suburban and urban areas in Scotland. Part of this shift can come from mobility hubs, which are so successful in the way they’ve transformed the lives of people and businesses in parts of Europe.

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They bring together public transport links, shared transport options, and even community facilities that improve the immediate surroundings.

For instance, you can go to the same place to hop on an electric bus, train or tram to the next town.

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You can access a bike-sharing or electric car-sharing initiative.

Perhaps you’ll enjoy some of the greenspace or community facilities that will have been gained.

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CoMoUK believes mobility hubs can be a much needed shot in the arm for Scottish high streets. In international examples, we see local businesses or organisations which are utilising the newly-created resource, keeping their spending for the local economy.

Both the Scottish and UK governments are keen on these hubs – one has already opened in a suburb of London and one is being introduced in Musselburgh in East Lothian.

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They bring energy and excitement to urban centres, and provide new opportunities and connectivity for the more deprived areas which are so often cut off from prosperous parts of town.

But these possibilities don’t need to be limited to mobility hubs.

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Bike-sharing schemes have proved popular across the UK since they increased in visibility.

Our research shows when they are boosted by promotional offers from councils and government, like discounts and free periods of use, they get ever more popular.

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They save users money and, as our studies have also revealed, often result in people going off to buy their own bike, so enthused are they by their new-found way of travelling about.

And as everyone knows, more cycling doesn’t just take cars off the road – it saves users money and has statistically proven benefits for both physical and mental health.

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Following on from COP26, people are looking around for ways of ensuring a legacy for Scotland, so ministers are to be applauded for their boldness on electric vehicles, and we will work with them every step of the way to help that along.

But it is boldness when it comes to our relationship with private car ownership which truly holds the keys to a greener future.

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Rachael Murphy is Scotland director of the shared transport charity, Collaborative Mobility UK (CoMoUK).

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