As people take to the streets today in their millions for the Global Climate Strike, calls for immediate action to tackle climate change are becoming ever more resounding. In this piece for Rebel, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin argues that the shift to mass, free public transport must be a priority if we are to take the Climate Emergency seriously.
Last month Minister for Transport Shane Ross appeared before people in a Twitter video, a self-satisfied smile on his face and a shiny new electric car by his side. Without a trace of shame or self-awareness, he urged the public to “consider going electric”, went on to mock Green Party leader Éamonn Ryan for still driving a “2003 diesel car” and urged his “Dáil colleagues” to follow him and “show an example” to the public in order to meet our emission targets.
A few days later, Ross tried a similar stunt, tweeting a photo of himself charging his electric car at a charging point in Marlay Park. It soon emerged that the charging point was not yet operational and Ross deleted the tweet amid widespread mockery.
The media furore that followed debated the “fake news” posted by Ross, questioned whether it was possible to provide enough operational charging systems for a mass transition to electric cars, debated the efficacy of electric cars compared to petrol or diesel cars, and generally didn’t come anywhere near a discussion of what kind of transport systems we need to put in place if we are in any way serious about tackling the Climate Emergency.
The government’s Climate Action Plan proposal of putting almost 1 million new electric vehicles on the roads by 2030 is on a completely different terrain to where the debate needs to be. It is highly unlikely that they will meet these targets, but that doesn’t matter. If you set off in completely the wrong direction at the outset of a journey, another wrong turn or two along the way won’t make any difference.
The reality is that if we are serious about reducing our emissions in any meaningful way, we must conduct a rapid overhaul of our transport systems so as to favour mass public transit over individuals travelling by car. There are many reasons for this.
Limitations of EVs
The first of these is that using an electric car is not, as Shane Ross put it, “emissions free travel”, not if we take into account the manner in which the electricity used to power the cars is produced, as well as the emissions involved in the production of the cars. In Ireland, for example, coal and peat are still used to generate much of our electricity. The estimated average emissions for an electric vehicle are around 70g per kilometre, according to the ESB.
The emissions involved in the production of electric engines are also often higher than those required to produce a conventional engine. Amnesty reports that “Most of the current manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries is concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting sources of power”.
Moreover, disposing of these engines at the end of life is an issue. The Global Battery Alliance, founded by the World Economic Forum, has flagged a major problem in the recycling of batteries, with “eleven million tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries forecast to be discarded by 2030, with few systems in place to enable reuse and recycling in a circular economy for batteries”.
If EVs are not “emissions free” and are associated with other environmental costs, how can we reduce emissions in this sector and reduce environmental destruction? The answer must be to invest heavily in public transport rather than maintaining a system where the vast majority of the population is forced to travel in cars.
Public Ownership, Not Private
The number of cars on the roads in Ireland increased by 288% between 1987 and 2017. This trend needs to be swiftly reversed. Transporting tens of people from A to B by bus or hundreds of people by train instead of by car would dramatically reduce the average emissions per individual journey.
This would involve all public transport being taken into public ownership and an unprecedented investment in rail infrastructure and in electric buses. In Ireland, the balance has been tipped dramatically in favour of road expenditure rather than spending on railways. Improving current rail networks, finishing the Western Rail Corridor and building other new networks would be a first step to getting people out of their cars for longer journeys. This would have the added advantage of incentivising the transport of freight by rail instead of by lorry—another source of heavy carbon emissions.
Numbers of buses on the roads would also need to be increased by hundreds every year for the next decade. Minister for Transport Shane Ross in conjunction with the Fine Gael-led government are utterly failing in this regard, with the number of buses now still barely above 2008 levels. Privatisation of routes is also a major issue. The sale of 10% of Dublin routes to UK company Go Ahead has meant that even the existing substandard timetables are not being fulfilled, as Go Ahead isn’t paying bus drivers enough to keep them in the job. The long term effect of privatisation is also that profitable routes are sold off, with the state left to service loss-making routes. This leads to further neoliberal attacks, with routes being cut on the grounds of “inefficiency”.
In fact, if the climate emergency is to be taken seriously, the profit motive should be taken out of transport entirely, with public transport being made free, as it is currently in Estonia and Luxembourg. The neoliberal attitude to tackling the Climate Emergency often speaks of “incentivising” people to lower their individual emissions, which invariably means punishing working people with carbon taxes so that they will lower their individual carbon footprint. The idea of a positive incentive for people to leave their cars behind in the form of free public transport is never considered.
The reason for this is the same reason governments all over the world have proven themselves utterly incapable of tackling the Climate Crisis over the last three decades—the profits of the major corporations cannot be touched. The 9th and 10th largest companies in the world are currently Volkswagen and Toyota, with revenues of $278 billion and $273 billion respectively. Volkswagen in particular are infamous for rigging their engines so that they appeared to produce less emissions during testing even though their true carbon footprint was much larger. Far from being punished for this criminal deception of the public, Volkswagen is currently the most successful automobile company in the world.
Clamour for Natural Resources
The promotion of massive numbers of EVs as a solution is an attempt by the establishment to tinker around the edges of a capitalist system that is driving us rapidly into a deep catastrophe. It perpetuates the constant plundering of planetary resources and human labour, the constant growth of the motor industry, and constant growth in profits for the car manufacturers.
In the motor industry this is epitomised by the intense drive to extract the raw metals such as cobalt and lithium that are used to construct “green” engines. Half the world’s cobalt is found in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo and is mined under extreme conditions by adult and child miners working for as little as $1 a day. According to a 2016 Amnesty International report chronic lung disease is endemic among miners, who often carry out their work without being provided any masks, gloves or safety equipment. Collapsing mines are a common occurrence and there is often a risk of suffocation when oxygen generators run out of power. Amnesty also report physical, sexual and drug abuse of children by security guards.
There are easy parallels to be drawn between modern day cobalt mining and coal mining in Britain during the industrial revolution, where children as young as 5 years of age were made to work long hours in extremely dangerous conditions. There is very little difference, therefore, between the early fossil fuel capitalists of the 19th century and the new “clean energy” capitalists profiting from cobalt mining in the present day.
It is clear then that Leo Varadkar’s proposal to get 1 million EVs on the roads by 2030 is a no go. To save the planet, we cannot have a system where individual transport solutions are prioritised over mass public transit. We cannot allow automobile companies to demand endless supplies of raw materials, driving the vociferous pursuit of cobalt, lithium and other metals and with it the environmental destruction and human misery this causes. We cannot allow the unlimited production of EVs for profit, with all the emissions involved in the production of batteries, as well as the long term problem of where to dispose of the spent vehicles. In short, we cannot all simply hop en masse from a petrol car to EVs, as Shane Ross has done, and carry on as normal. Doing this may slow the race to the cliff edge very slightly, but whether you drive off the edge at 60 miles per hour or at 55 miles per hour, you still die.
Investing heavily in free public transport would directly confront the race to destruction of the automobile industry. Emissions and environmental destruction would be reduced dramatically if buses and trains were being produced for public need rather than for the profits of major automobile companies. This transition must also insist on the sustainable, ethical mining of materials in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo—something that would be attainable once the profit motive is removed.
The prevention of total environmental breakdown cannot be achieved in the long run without the overthrow over the capitalist system. However, the demand for free, efficient, mass public transport systems is a vital transitional demand that movements can rally around as we fight for a better future.