One of the biggest oversights in the transport decarbonisation debate is the role of energy. Of course, if we replace every fossil fuel mile driven with a mile driven by a vehicle powered by 100% renewable energy resources then we could (ignoring materials) claim to have reached a zero carbon future. Job most definitely not done.
As we switch demands which were previously not electrical we implicitly require more generation and more storage. So the quantum of demand for electricity matters. And that’s just cars – air travel and heavy goods transport can only be partially electrified. And it matters more when we lift our gaze from transport to all of the other sectors in the economy that are making the same switch, such as domestic heat. The multiple demands for additional electricity, if left unchecked, could require an electricity system four times the size it is today.
Scaling up grid provision is technically feasible, but is it sensible? It makes the UK economy more reliant on one energy system with associated resilience challenges and it raises serious equity issues. Are the 25% of households that do not own cars, for example, expected to pay in to allow vehicle owners to plug in their vehicles? It has even been suggested that car owners with smart chargers will have access to lower energy tariffs as this will improve storage capacity for the grid and reduce overall costs. Is that fair? Overall costs are only reduced from some imagined future which is created by the reliance on more EVs, not from today’s levels.
But of course, transport planners have long been arguing that other than at the tailpipe a car is a car is a car, however it is propelled. Electrification does not tackle congestion, exclusion, physical inactivity, particulates from brakes and road safety etc. Whilst air quality and climate emissions will diminish as problems, cheaper motoring could well bring others.
How much energy do we need for everyday life?
So what then? This blog is a taster for a major new report which addresses the issue of how much energy we need for everyday life and what the carbon implications of different futures might be. I’ve had a small hand in the work as part of the mobility team led by Jillian Anable and Christian Brand. It is ground breaking in looking across all sectors of the UK economy as well as at the interactions between them.
The question at the heart of the report is familiar: how far can improvements in energy efficiency and the carbon content of energy via technological improvements help us reach our carbon goals without any reductions in the demand for the energy services (heating, lighting, mobility), themselves? It’s not really a spoiler alert to note that the report finds what many others have done before, that we will not reach our 2035 or 2050 carbon targets without significant demand shift and reduction. The major contribution of this study, though, is that it has dared to go beyond quantification of ‘what’ has to happen in terms of the balance between avoiding, shifting and improving energy service demands by detailing both the ‘how’ as well as the wider costs and benefits.
What do we travel for?
The mobility team started our search by exploring what we travelled for. We pushed ourselves to think about what felt like feasible shifts in terms of distances travelled for different journey purposes by mode. For example, where international holidays reduced we had to make allowances for more and longer domestic leisure journeys. Different policy levers were assumed such as frequent flyer levies and increasing taxation on multi-car household ownership along with the usual carrots of road space reallocation and better provision for walking, cycling and other forms of zero carbon, active travel. Significant freight consolidation, improved load factors and better on-road fuel efficiency was also required. Electrification remains central but with fewer and smaller vehicles which are more intensively used. In the transform scenario we pushed even harder on changing commute and business practices for example.
The full report will set out quite how far our ambitions have been able to push the energy and carbon envelope for mobility and how this fits with other sectors. However, what is different about this scenario exercise is that it creates a upbeat vision for what a lower energy demand life could look like. It definitely means doing things differently and quite radically so, but it is a positive view of how we can still live a good life doing the things we enjoy with overall lower costs to society as a whole. People can still have access to local services, leisure and holiday activities, and diverse employment opportunities, but they will do so breathing cleaner air and with better mental and physical health to boot.
The big note of caution I have is that we seem some way off imagining and delivering the kinds of futures we arrived at. And the door to those futures is not open for ever. If we electrify rapidly and address our demand for energy slowly then lower energy futures will be boxed off as people become locked in to low cost e-mobility. So, the question is whether we are focussed on generating healthier, fairer and fulfilling mobility futures or whether what we are really interested in generating in our mobility futures is more electricity and a bigger, more vulnerable and more expensive set of turbines, wires and plugs to go with it?
Banner photo credit: Gary Butterfield on Unsplash