Do climate geeks dream of electric cars? I know I do

Alexandru Luta
Helsinki Times

Another warm winter has come and gone. You may shrug and say, “Yes, global warming, nothing I can do about it” – but what if you could?

Governments have been trying to do something for almost two decades now. The Kyoto Protocol is an in-ternational treaty aimed at stopping global warming by limiting greenhouse gas emis-sions. Finland has committed itself to keeping its emissions at their 1990 level: some 71 million tons. But according to the United Nations Frame-work Convention on Climate Change, which supervises the Protocol, in 2006 Finland emitted around 80 million tons of greenhouse gases.

As we all now know, green-house gases, the most com-mon of which is carbon dioxide, come from burning fossil fuels. In 2006 Finland emitted some 67 millions tons of CO2, about 12 million of which were produced by road transport alone.

In order to decrease that we have to eliminate our re-liance on the internal com-bustion engine. Electric cars are the way of the future. By this I don’t mean hybrids, but fully electric cars that run on battery power alone.

This is not just a flight of fan-cy. The state of California en-acted new legislation in 1990, and less than a decade later a number of US automakers were already producing com-pletely electric vehicles. They worked just like regular cars, except instead of an internal combustion engine they had a very large battery. The bat-tery could be charged over-night, and in the morning the car would simply run on the accumulated power, emitting literally nothing.

Of course, there would be some emissions. After all, the electricity has to come from somewhere and most power plants today burn fossil fuel. Experts love to argue about the so-called well-to-wheel efficiency of these vehicles, but word has it that electric cars were already almost a decade ago leaving their fos-sil fuel counterparts behind, and their gains were getting progressively better as bat-tery technology improved. Also, once we as a society start switching from fossil fuels to renewables or nu-clear power – free of green-house gas emissions – the carbon footprint of this new form of transportation would plummet.

But even today, with our dirty technologies, from the point of view of economies of scale the idea of an elec-tric car is an inspired one. A motorized vehicle is basi-cally a small generator with wheels slapped on. In 2007 there were 4,950,760 of them in Finland, 2,700,492 of those being passenger cars. But why have nearly five million small and ineffi cient power plants running around, when a vastly smaller number of larger and more effi cient ones Alexandru P. Luta, Research Assistant, Program of the International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment, Finnish Institute of International Affairs. could make cars run just as well on regular electricity?

There is no reason for scepti-cism about changing to new-fangled automobiles. Electric cars are the same as any reg-ular car. The EV1, a model produced by General Motors in the 1990s, was the same size, just as powerful, and ac-celerated even faster than its petrol-driven counterparts. With modern NiMH batter-ies the car could go for up to 260 kilometers without re-charging. Bearing in mind that the average daily com-mute by car in Finland is 32 kilometres, the practicali-ty of the idea becomes even more apparent. SADLY, the EV1 will never be available for purchase in this country. General Mo-tors had leased around 1000 of them to Californians, but when the fi rst lease period expired the company simply did not offer customers the option to renew their leas-es. Instead, it rounded all the cars up and reduced them all to scrap metal in large indus-trial crushers. You can watch this mindboggling sequence of events for yourselves in a 2006 documentary by direc-tor Chris Paine, Who Killed the Electric Car?

Similar fates befell oth-er electric cars in California in the first half of this dec-ade. Paine hints darkly that what brought these wonder-cars down was an alliance between car companies, re-senting being told what kind of car to produce, and Big Oil, hostile to the idea of cars that did not need oil.

Alternatives to electric cars do not grow on trees. If you live in Finland, you should not bank too much on hydro-gen fuel cells, for instance. In the words of some of the very people working on them, “they would not do very good in cold weather”. (Also, un-less you have one million US dollars to spare, I would not try buying one, either.)

Thankfully, present-day market developments speak for themselves: in response to stricter emissions codes major car producers are rushing to launch electric ze-ro-emission vehicles in Japan and Europe by the end of this decade.