The internal combustion engine (ICE) is the biggest consumer of fossil fuel and emitter of CO2 on the planet, writes Alan Thornett. It has powered road transport for over a century. It is now – remarkably – set to be abolished within a decade and a half.
The source of its demise is the decision of a growing number of countries, nine at the moment, to announce a total ban on the sale of new ICE vehicles at dates between 2025 and 2040. Norway has said by 2025 and France by 2040. In Britain, Johnson has just brought forward Britain’s target date from 2040 to 2035 – or even 2033 – and including hybrids. Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have said they will ban ICE cars by 2025. Automotive manufacture is highly globalised, and once an end-date is on the table, even by a minority of countries, the ICE industry is effectively obsolete.
These decisions, in turn, are driven by rapidly increasing global warming resulting in devastating wild-fires such as those that have ravaged Australia and Amazonia, and escalating levels of air pollution that has brought major cities around the world to a standstill as their inhabitants choke in the streets. The World Health Organisation has identified motor vehicles emissions as the single biggest environmental outdoor health risk in the world, contributing to 3.7m deaths a year.
Automotive manufacturers – after decades of blocking electrification in alliance with the oil producers – are now scrambling to introduce electric models (EVs). The share value of the high-end electric car manufacturer Tesla recently rose by 17 per cent to $164bn – which is more than the combined value of General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler. The implications of this are enormous. Road vehicles are the biggest customer of the petrochemical industry by far and if these decisions are not reversed – and this would be very difficult since manufacturers have already seen the writing on the wall – this would represent the biggest challenge to the industry since its inception.
Road transport accounts for 20 per cent of global CO2 emissions. According to the European Environment Agency cars are the biggest culprit, producing a massive 60.7% of such emissions. Heavy vehicles produce 26.2%; light commercial vehicles 11.9%; water navigation 13.6%; civil aviation 13.4%; and railways 0.5%. Road vehicle electrification, therefore, is a crucial step towards cutting both CO2 emissions and atmospheric pollution.
What led Boris Johnson to take such a measure – which stands in sharp contrast to everything else he is doing in terms of the environment, like supporting HS2, airport expansion, and nuclear energy, and his complete indifference to the current floods that are sweeping the country is not easy to answer. It might be that he fails to understand the consequences of his actions or that whist he shares the world view of Trump and Bolsonaro he does not share their consistency. It will give him ‘bragging rights’ in Glasgow but he might regret later when the oil industry comes knocking on the door.
The rise of the ICE
The ICE shaped the 20th century more than anything else. After it had replaced water and then steam, by the middle of the 20th century, the ICE became the mightiest power source in history. Today in America, car, bus, and lorry engines have the capacity to produce ten times the energy of its power stations.
There are now 1.4 billion vehicles, cars vans, trucks and buses (excluding off-road vehicles or heavy machinery) on the global roads, and growth rate is astonishing.[i] In 1976 there were just 342 million ICE powered vehicles on the roads which rose to 670 million by 1996 – i.e. doubling 20 years. With such a growth rate, if nothing changes, we can expect to see around 2.8 billion such vehicles on the roads by 2040. At the same time the engine capacity of vehicles is increasing. Last year SUV’s were a staggering 36 per cent of global passenger car sales. Such a rate of expansion is catastrophic for the planet.
Modern society was massively (grotesquely) shaped by the ICE – the Global North in particular. It spawned the development of suburbia and the drive into the city to work. City centres and neighbourhoods were blighted with concrete highways that soon became permanent traffic jams, with people pushed to the side-lines choking on exhaust fumes. Today 85% of Americans commute to work by car.[ii] This destructive legacy will take huge investment to reverse.
The rate of growth of the ICE has been even higher in the Global South. By 2017 China had not only overtaken the USA (with over 300 million vehicles on its roads) but its lower per-capita penetration left a lot of room for further growth.[iii] Today there are 40 Chinese cities that have car ownership of more than 1 million and in eleven cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin, car ownership exceeds 2 million.
An article in the Shanghai Daily on 28 January 2018, entitled ‘China’s Maturing Auto Market Gives Rise to Car Culture and Individuality’, says that: ‘In 40 years China has transformed itself from a land of bicycles to a global automobile market, where a wide range of car brands and models can be seen on the road. It has become common for Chinese families to purchase a second or a third car. Automobiles have greatly extended the sphere of Chinese people’s lives. But more than that, they have become a symbol of individuality.’
Nor is it just China. According to Statista, car sales in Asia, Oceania, and the Middle East have almost tripled in 12 years from 15.1 million in 2005 to 40.5 million in 2017. In South America car sales also held strong in 2018, despite the global average declining for the first time since 2009 – just after the international financial crisis.
Two countries, Finland and Andorra have already surpassed a density more than one car per inhabitant. They are closely followed by Italy at 0.84, the USA with 0.83 and Malaysia with 0.80. These are followed by Luxembourg, Malta, Iceland, Austria, and Greece with between 0.73 and 0.75 vehicles per person.[iv]
The ban in the ICE put the electrification of road vehicles, including the car, at the top of the agenda as the only available and viable alternative. The environmental left, therefore, should support both these bans on the ICE and their replacement by fully electric vehicles. Not because EVs are perfect (which they are not) but because they are better and better is important with global warming escalating and people gasping for air on the streets. We should call for all countries to adopt this policy and complete the process by at least 2030 – with hybrids also abolished.[v] This means the rapid installation of the infrastructure for EVs, which is already happening but has to be accelerated.
We should not, however, support the replacement of the current global fleet of ICE vehicles with a similar number of EVs. The aimmust be a major global overall reduction in road vehicle numbers, particularly cars. This means reducing the number ICE vehicles and at the same time introducing electrification – resulting in a much smaller, but electrified, global fleet. Some cars and small vehicles will still be necessary – though collectively rather than privately owned.
At the moment heavy long-distance vehicles are the most difficult to electrify because of current battery weight, but this will change with new generations of batteries. Maximum freight, in any case should be transferred to rail put on an expanded network.
The advantages of EVs, however, are clear – even at the present stage of its development. It brings about an immediate reduction in CO2 emissions and then a much bigger reduction once the electrification process is completed. It also brings about an immediate and major reduction in air pollution at street level.
The US National Resources Defence Council concludes that LVs already emit 54 per cent less CO2 than petrol fuelled vehicles even with the existing level of technology of both vehicles and grid systems. This, they say, will improve further as LV technology becomes more developed and the grids increasingly decarbonised. A recent EU study found that an electric car using electricity generated solely by an oil-fired power station would still use only two-thirds of the energy of a petrol-powered car travelling the same distance.[vi]
Fully electric cars, with no gearbox and fewer moving parts, are simpler and cheaper to build and maintain than ICE vehicles – and they last longer. They are also much cheaper to run, with electricity a tenth the price petrol or diesel. This is because EVs powered solely by an electric motor (i.e. not a hybrid) are around 90 per cent efficient in turning electricity into traction whilst and internal combustion engine will never get beyond 50 per cent with most at the moment at around 35 per cent because they waste so much heat in the process. Also, charging EVs from power stations is more efficient than burning fuel in separate units.
Passenger cars are easier to replace than freight vehicles, but there is an alternative. It involves (particularly in the Global North) reducing the amount of stuff we ‘consume’, eradication unnecessary production, and localising it as much as possible. Also getting as much freight as possible off the roads and on to rail.
EVs are still more expensive than ICE vehicles, but EV sales are increasing all the time. When battery costs have come down, as they will, to the point where the whole car is the same price as an ICE vehicle, and battery technology has reached the point where the whole range of electric cars can offer 200 miles plus range on a single charge sale will really take off – depending on the level subsidies.
The radical left
Despite the powerful case that can be made for EVs over the ICE many on the radical left continue to oppose then – which is in effect an argument for the continuation of the ICE. Some draw up list of problems or impacts that EVs have on the planet, with some having more substance than others, while others argue that EVs are just as, or even more, polluting than the ICE – which is totally false. Multiple studies have found that fully electric vehicles are already far less and less polluting than the ICE, or indeed hybrids, and the technology is developing fast.
The demise of the ICE, however, is a huge challenge if it to reach maximum benefit. It involves a major restructuring of society itself including the redesigns of towns and cities, and a big expansion of bus and rail services – both passenger and freight. It means localising destinations, for work or leisure, and making them accessible by public transport. It means the provision of free public transport – both inside towns and cities and between them; something that is increasingly being considered by city administrations which are facing ever higher traffic levels and air pollution. It also means looking at the way we live and the resources we consume. We have to drive less and think carefully about the trips we decided to make.
The idea that the ICE can be abolished without an electrification stage, that seems to be suggested by some on the left, lacks credibility. How 1.4 billion ICE vehicles can be removed at a stroke, without creating global chaos in the process is hard to comprehend. Such an exercise needs an exit strategy – and the only one available is electrification.
Some argue that EVs generate more CO2 in their manufacture than ICE vehicles. Whilst there is truth in this the difference is quite small and reducing. According to Greenage the CO2 emissions generated in the manufacture of a mid-sized EV is about 15 per cent more than with an equivalent ICE vehicle.[vii] This difference, however, is likely to be cancelled out with future developments in battery technology. (see below))
Others complain that vehicle manufacturers will continue to make profit out of EVs as they do the ICE. I would suggest that the nationalisation of the whole industry from power generation to the grid systems to mineral extraction and car and battery manufacture is the best answer to this. It would also be the best way to bring about the biggest reduction of emissions in the shortest possible time.
There are, indeed, many unresolved problems with EV technology. Apart from CO2 emissions road vehicles generate pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides that are major contributors to acid rain, which impacts massively on biodiversity. Particulates, from brakes and tyres can also effect breathing and trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. Some compounds emitted are potentially carcinogenic.
Most grid systems are out of date, at a time when they will be facing increased demand from electrification, which will add between 10 and 15 per cent increased demand. Most grids are only partially decarbonised – though this varies from country to country. We should demand full (none nuclear) decarbonisation of the grid systems in the shortest possible time. The advantages of EVs will only be partial until this is completed. EVs can also benefit from cheaper night-time off-peak power that would otherwise be wasted. Also smart chargers which will be able to select the cheapest energy from the 24-hour period.
Battery technology is also out of date. The current battery technology is the lithium-ion battery. This was a major advance when it was originally developed for laptops computers and mobile phones and then adapted for motor vehicles but it is now out of date. A lithium-ion
battery giving a range of 200 miles weighs around 700 kilos – which is twice the weight of a tank of petrol or diesel at the point of refuelling. This makes an electric car around 20 per cent heavier than its ICE equivalent – and the longer the range the bigger the battery. At the moment only the highly expensive Tesla offers a range per charge of over 200 miles. There is now a late scramble by manufacturers to upgrade battery technology that has been retarded for decades. A small army of scientists are now working on it.
According to Autopia-The Future of Cars,[viii] the next step change in battery technology is likely to be solid state batteries (where liquid electrolyte is replaced by solid state material). This is being developed by Dyson and Toyota, and they are around five years away. These batteries will not only be lighter but more fire resistant and work normally over a wider temperature range. Another approach being developed is the Lithium air battery which at the moment could be as much as 10 years away. Recycling also remains underdeveloped at the moment but both Lithium and cobalt are recyclable and become more so as volumes increase.
The increased mineral extraction of various minerals is also a concern – cobalt in particular. Cobalt is a component in lithium-ion batteries that power EVs, as well as laptops and mobile phones (though concern is not raised in relation to them), and demand for it is expected to skyrocket. Cobalt is mined all over the world, but over half of the current global supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo under unacceptable human rights conditions. Increasing demand, however, is likely to boost global exploration and diversify supply whilst further development in battery technology may reduce its further usage in that regard. Lithium is produced from brine reserves and is also used in
The demand for copper will also rise sharply, since copper is (unsurprisingly) used throughout EVs, charging stations and supporting infrastructure. It also increases the demand for tin, with several Cornish tin mines preparing to reopen as the price of tin goes up.
Whilst these problems have to be tackled, they should not be used to delay the introduction of EVs. Neither ourselves, or the planet, have either the luxury, or the timescale, of waiting around for perfection. There is, in any case, no such thing as a zero-polluting form of motorised vehicle – whether it is fossil fuel, electric, hybrid or hydrogen fuel cells. Even EVs pollute. The question that arises, however, is not whether EVs are the ultimate answer: they are not. The question is whether they represent a substantial improvement over the ICE for a transitional period cutting emissions and helping people to breathe on the streets – and of that there is no doubt.
[ii] The Economist August 2017.
[v] Most hybrids are corporate cars with the none-ICE side hardly if ever used.
[viii] Jon Bently, Autopia-The Future of Cars, Atlantic Books, 2019, p.56.