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Electric cars won’t break our fossil fuel dependency

The gulf between what scientists say is needed to save the planet and what governments actually agree keeps growing. International climate talks held last month in Katowice, Poland, were no exception.

At the summit, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait joined forces to water down recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, Australia celebrated coal, Brazil pushed to weaken rules on carbon markets. 

It’s no surprise that an increasing number of people think that tackling global warming cannot be left to national governments alone. Some have begun looking to local government and community initiatives. Others resort to direct action against the perceived treachery of political elites.

Knowledge of the past is a powerful weapon for those hoping to shape the planet’s future. Cutting fossil fuel consumption requires an understanding of its relentless expansion since the mid-20th century.

We can start with the technological systems and infrastructures that consume fossil fuels; cars, electricity, heating and buildings. Moving away from fossil fuels will require transforming these infrastructures and the social and economic systems in which we live.

Take cars, for example. Technological change helped catapult them to prominence: together with steam turbines and electricity networks, the internal combustion engine was one of the great innovations of the second industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century.

But it took social and economic change to make cars the predominant mode of urban transport. In the 1920s, US car manufacturers pioneered automated assembly lines, transforming cars from luxury items to mass consumer products. Manufacturers used political muscle to side-line and sabotage competing forms of transport, including sidecars, buses and railways.

Car use exploded during America’s post-war boom thanks to huge state investment in highways. Suburbia proliferated and spread internationally, as some other rich countries embraced this pattern of urban development.

But by the 1980s, the car boom had become a traffic jam. At home in the US, manufacturers mounted effective resistance to the state’s sporadic attempts at regulating fuel efficiency, and gas-guzzling SUVs arrived.


Today, those working to create carbon-free cities are confronted with the economic and social structures that have normalised car use.

The current fixation with electric and driverless cars is an example of spurious technological fixes obscuring the reality that moving away from fossil fuels requires systemic social and economic change.

Using electric cars probably won’t cut carbon emissions much – or at all – unless electricity is generated entirely from renewables. And while countries like Germany and Spain have taken important steps to raise the proportion of renewable electricity, the hard part is yet to come: creating systems that rely mostly, or entirely, on renewable electricity.

Cities must become places where transport systems don’t depend on cars. While trams, walkways and bicycle-friendly infrastructures can help towards this end, the central function of electric cars is preserving manufacturer’s profits.

As with cars, so with urban electricity, heating systems, and built environments: technological change to reduce fossil fuel use must go hand in hand with broader social and economic change.

Like cars, electricity systems were a great innovation of the late nineteenth century.

Their first phase of development culminated in the post-war boom and depended on large, centralised power stations that were usually coal-fired.

Since the 1980s, a third industrial revolution that produced networked computers and internet enabled devices has made it possible to supersede the centralised networks that relied on fossil fuels. Now we have the potential for integrated, decentralised systems reliant on multiple energy sources – including renewables like solar and heat pumps, and wind turbines.

Yet this “smart grid” technology has scarcely been applied, despite three decades passing since the effects of global warming were first discovered. Why?

One explanation is that networks are operated by companies whose business model relies on selling as much electricity as possible. These companies are scared by the possibility of distributed generation systems, where networks collect electricity from multiple renewable sources. And community-based decentralised electricity ventures are forced to compete with these established corporations on unequal terms.

A briefing paper published last year by researchers at Imperial College, London, argued that moving the UK’s electricity and heat systems away from fossil fuels would require a “whole system approach” coordinated by “one single party”.

This implies that the dogmas of competition, which have favoured corporate providers rather than public sector responses, are obstructing the technologies needed to tackle global warming.

This is not a new problem. In 1976, following the oil price shock, sustainable energy advocate Amory Lovins spoke in the US Congress about “soft energy paths” that would combine a culture of energy efficiency and a transition to renewables.

He pointed to the “roads not taken” by governments, who were more inclined to defend incumbent corporate interests than use energy technologies wisely.

Forty years on, despite the threat of global warming, these issues still loom large. Social change, powerful enough to remove the obstructions to the transition from fossil fuels, is more urgent than ever.

Simon Pirani is author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto Press, 2018) and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
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