Sustainable transport: An electric future

Electric cars are often hailed as the future of transportation, the solution to the world's air pollution problem. They are marketed by the motor industry as the tool to reducing emissions and cutting greenhouse gasses. But is it really quite that simple?

Sustainable transport: An electric future

Electric cars are often hailed as the future of transportation, the solution to the world’s air pollution problem. They are marketed by the motor industry as the tool to reducing emissions and cutting greenhouse gasses. But is it really quite that simple?


Sustainability of a transport system is based on efficiency and effectivity, as well as the social, environmental and climate impacts of that system. They should make a positive contribution to each of those fields and the communities they serve. When you start to dissect what that means in real terms, you have to look at air pollution and associated health implications, carbon emissions and contribution to climate change, and perhaps less obviously, the wider social costs of that system; road crashes, physical inactivity, vulnerability to fuel cost increases, the opportunity-cost of congestion time and access.


Are electric cars really sustainable?

Electric vehicles are certainly more fuel-efficient but only when compared with traditional petrol or diesel-fuelled motors. When considering the wider implications of electric vehicles, they still contribute to road crashes, traffic congestion and lead to physical inactivity.


The biggest problem with electric cars is that they encourage car use, where a truly sustainable transport system would look to reduce the number of vehicles on the road to increase both the efficiency and effectivity of that system.


Public transport systems that rely heavily on diesel-fuelled engines – typically buses – have lower per-head fuel consumption than cars, they take up less road space and are ordinarily safer, so when you combine the two and start exploring the introduction of electric public transport options, electric trains, trams and buses, suddenly the efficiencies of the system start to multiply. And greater sustainability can be achieved.


Coupled with this, there needs to be greater understanding of the contribution that electric cars can play in tackling the air pollution crisis. Particulate matter is the sum of all solid and liquid particles that occupy the air, made up of dust, smoke and soot, most of which are hazardous. There are no safe levels of particulate matter yet some 45% of it comes from vehicle tyre and brake wear. Replacing every diesel or petrol car with an electric equivalent would have zero impact on reducing particulate matter levels.


Inevitably, electric cars have a significant role to play in making global improvement to the environmental impact current transport systems are having on the planet; reducing the 39% of world energy that is at present consumed by unsustainable transport networks and slashing the 97% of emissions that come directly from burning fossil fuels. Short-term, a focus on fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions will go some way to making positive change.


Long-term however, there needs to be a bigger focus on areas of transport systems that go much further towards creating truly sustainable solutions. They should factor production, use and post-use considerations, and incorporate economic and social implications, minimising environmental impact, not just reducing it.



Ringing in the changes

Lots of governing bodies, organisations and industry professionals are heavily invested in creating a more sustainable future for transport systems around the world.


The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that 2.4m premature deaths occur each year from outdoor air pollution that could otherwise be avoided. Coupled with environmental impact of greenhouse gases and the frightening pace it’s impacting on the planet, the short-term influence of a shift to electric cars is already being felt on an economical basis in some markets around the world.


The European Commission published a white paper that describes its sustainable transport aim; primarily that is to “reduce the adverse effects connected to mobility” and goes on to describe that to mean “above all, promoting co-modality, ie optimally combining various modes of transport within the transport chain, which looking forward, is the solution in the case of freight. Technical innovations and a shift towards the least polluting and most energy efficient models of transport”.  


The European Union Council of Ministers of Transport, defines a sustainable transportation system as one that:

·Allows the basic access and development needs of individuals, companies and society to be met safely and in a manner consistent with human and ecosystem health, and promotes equity within and between successive generations

·Is affordable, operates fairly and efficiently, offers a choice of transport mode, and supports a competitive economy, as well as balanced regional development

·Limits emissions and waste within the planet’s ability to absorb them, uses renewable resources at or below their rates of generation, and uses non-renewable resources at or below the rates of development of renewable substitutes, while minimising the impact on the use of land and the generation of noise


When you measure the potential impact of electric cars next to the necessary requirements of a sustainable transport system, it seems to make only a single wave in an almighty ocean, and approaching it singularly is not conducive to arriving at success.


Of course, walking is the most-green transport choice, but it fails to deliver on access. Cycling is another option, with very low environmental impact, that positively reduces pressures on health systems in the process, but does it provide the efficiency we need in modern life? Where is the right balance? What combinational solution can provide sustainability and meet the needs of current and future generations in this ever-demanding world?



edie Live 2019

Taking place on 21-22 May at the NEC Birmingham, edie Live is the only UK event connecting energy, sustainability and resource professionals with the information, ideas and suppliers they need to make their business more sustainable., including the EV Showroom that will showcase electric vehicles and charging stations, bringing to life how electric vehicles can be implemented by your business and help reduce your carbon footprint as part of your sustainability strategy.


edie Live attracts thousands of visitors to meet hundreds of innovative exhibitors and take part in hours of information-packed seminars, interactive products trials, one-to-one advice clinics and great networking. For more information, see here.

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