Throw the electric car under the bus (or the tram, or the train…)!

Well, no, I am not an enemy of the electric vehicle (EV). I am fairly certain it is going to have an important role to play in the future of personal travel. The problem is not in the technology, or in the number of charging stations, or any other technical point, it is in the timing! Let me explain…

There seem to be a few things that almost everyone can agree on, if not on the exact numbers, so at least on the rough outlines:

– While electric cars will consume less energy (independently from the discussion of how electric energy is produced in different areas), their lifetime consumption is still significant. Over a car lifetime may they consume two thirds of what a Diesel car uses, or even less, but it is far from negligible.

– By far the biggest amount of an EV’s energy use accrues in production, so right at the start.

– According to many predictions, the world has a small window, five to ten years (again, the details vary) to reduce its CO2 emissions, an important part of which is to reduce energy use in car traffic.

– At the moment, the production capacity for EVs is in the hundreds of thousands per year, if at all.

Given these facts, it is immediately obvious that replacing any significant number of conventional cars (40 million, give or take, in Germany alone) by EVs is going to take many more than those years we seem to have left to avert a climate disaster. And even if we could ramp up production by a factor of ten within a year – let’s say by Musky magic – it would actually worsen the problem, as all the up-front energy use for building these cars would happen in the critical years, while most of the old gas guzzlers would still be around and there is not enough renewable energy to supply all those Gigafactories. So we would actually get increased energy use, and with it increased CO2 emissions, exactly in those critical next ten years (and, in fact, much beyond that).

So while using EVs for replacement of conventional cars at the “natural” attrition rate is going to be a boon for the climate ten or twenty or more years from now, it isn’t going to help at all inside the critical window. Forcing replacement of still workable conventional cars by EVs would even be absolutely counterproductive.

This brings me to back to the title, to the one simple and effective measure we could take right now to combat climate change in the traffic area in the next couple of years: Make public transport free of charge! Instead of wasting money on incentives to buy EVs, it (and more) should be spent on subsidizing public transport down to zero cost for the traveler. This would immediately change almost everyone’s calculation basis for choosing a medium for their mobility needs, and would lead to gazillions of miles not driven, which is the only real way to help the climate in the immediate future.