Should I keep my ageing diesel car for the sake of climate change?

A new electric car would have to drive almost 50,000 miles to have a lower carbon footprint than a petrol driven vehicle

A few years ago I decided to trade in my gas-guzzling car and switch to something more environmentally friendly. The new car had much lower carbon emissions. My local council in London recognised as much, cutting my parking charges in half.

Fuel consumption was almost 50 per cent better. I was smug about saving money and also saving the planet since an air pollution website noted that "overall, diesel cars emit less hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and lead pollution than petrol cars". But there was a catch.

My new car was diesel. And at the time, like many consumers, I did not know that diesel cars also “produce more noxious gases and significantly more particulates.” This year, local councils in London, which formerly offered cheaper parking for diesel have quickly done an about-turn.

My diesel parking charges are shooting up. So here is my conundrum: should I now change my car once more, this time to an electric car, because yet again regulators, councils and governments preach their environmental benefits?

Given my diesel experience, I am a little suspicious. This week I came across a study by vehicle and technology companies including Aston Martin, Honda, Bosch and McLaren.

The scope of the study went much wider than calculating emissions from car’s exhaust systems, where electric cars do well.

An electric car is seen at a charging point at Halfords in Rugby, Britain, November 19, 2020. REUTERS/Molly Darlington

The researchers also took into account the massive amount of energy required to produce a new car – any new car – and especially the battery pack and requirements for environmentally expensive materials.

The research concluded that a new electric car would have to drive almost 50,000 miles to have a lower carbon footprint than a petrol driven vehicle.

That would drop to just over 30,000 miles if all the car’s energy came from renewables, although ensuring renewables-only power from easily available charge points would be impossible for drivers to manage. The Volvo Polestar 2 electric car, for example, accounted for 24 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Electric vehicles (EV) charge at a charging station on east London on November 18, 2020. Britain will ban petrol and diesel vehicle sales from 2030 as part of a 10-point plan for a "green industrial revolution" to be unveiled Wednesday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  / AFP / DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

A comparable petrol model, the Volvo XC40, accounted for 14 tonnes. This disparity would eventually be offset over the lifetime of the electric vehicle, and cars in the UK usually last an average of 14 years.

But there is a bigger picture behind my personal dilemma about changing my car.

The vast majority of us who accept that man-made climate change is real and a threat to the future of the planet cannot simply blame big corporations for the mess we are in.

Activists take part in a climate change rally in Jakarta on November 27, 2020. / AFP / Dasril Roszandi

Sure, car manufacturers, airlines, oil and gas companies and others need to do more.

Governments, preparing for next year’s COP26 world climate conference in Glasgow, also need to consider tougher international rules on sources of pollution, which would help the best companies compete and force the worst to change. But what about you and me?

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I am not one of those defeatists who believe that if we cannot do everything to halt climate change then we should do nothing

Should I keep my ageing diesel car for another year or two? If I trade it in, someone else will drive it for another five or 10 years.

Might a better electric version arrive with technology involving less depletion of scarce minerals?

A scientific paper written almost a decade ago from Britain’s University of Bath pointed out that battery powered cars were not a magic bullet for a better environment because “batteries can be inefficient and comprise of materials that have high environmental and energy impacts… some materials, such as lithium, are scarce natural resources.

As a result, the overall impact of increasing our reliance on such “sustainable or “low carbon” systems may in fact have an additional detrimental impact.”

TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 12: Ayaka Iba, a film editor from Tokyo, washes a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle before taking it to a recycling bin outside her apartment building on November 12, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Despite its size, Japan is the world's second largest exporter of plastic waste after the USA and is second only to the US in consumption of single-use plastic packaging per person. Around 10 million tons of plastic is produced a year - the third highest amount in the world - with roughly three quarters being discarded within 12 months. Although the government has made efforts recently to address the issue, it declined, along with the USA, to sign a 2017 agreement between G7 countries to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the worlds oceans and cut down on the usage of single-use plastics, such as straws, bottles and cups. Japan has one of the lowest plastic recycling rates among OECD countries - with approximately 75 percent of waste sent to incinerators where it has to be burnt using ultra-high-temperature furnaces and filter systems to avoid releasing dioxins. However, the resulting exhaust fumes contribute to climate change. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

I am not one of those defeatists who believe that if we cannot do everything to halt climate change then we should do nothing. We need to do whatever we can.

But the impulse to buy something new, in this case a shiny new car, or the latest smartphone, or some other gadget that we are told is environmentally friendly, is simply clever marketing to increase consumption of the world’s scarce resources by pretending we are doing good.

There really is no silver bullet to tackle climate change but there are plenty of things to do.

Governments can demand honesty from manufacturers and seek to require batteries and other components to be more long-lasting.

Corporations could market the resilience of their products as a demonstration of their competitive advantage.

Why should a weak battery force me to change my smartphone after less than three years? As consumers we could do our bit by simply consuming less and thinking more.

Seriously, how many pairs of jeans, T-shirts or trainers do we really need?

TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 19: Workers sort through plastic household waste at Minato plastic household waste at Minato Resource Recycle Centre on November 19, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Despite its size, Japan is the world's second largest exporter of plastic waste after the USA and is second only to the US in consumption of single-use plastic packaging per person. Around 10 million tons of plastic is produced a year - the third highest amount in the world - with roughly three quarters being discarded within 12 months. Although the government has made efforts recently to address the issue, it declined, along with the USA, to sign a 2017 agreement between G7 countries to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the worlds oceans and cut down on the usage of single-use plastics, such as straws, bottles and cups. Japan has one of the lowest plastic recycling rates among OECD countries - with approximately 75 percent of waste sent to incinerators where it has to be burnt using ultra-high-temperature furnaces and filter systems to avoid releasing dioxins. However, the resulting exhaust fumes contribute to climate change. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

And in one striking example, research a year ago from the energy company OVO concluded that sending just one fewer email a day from every adult in the UK would save as much carbon as 81,152 flights from Britain to Madrid. Cutting out an email a day would be a guilt-free pleasure.

Even better, could we somehow charge the originators of the spam that clogs our inboxes, perhaps a penny per email?

A penny-a-spam-tax might be the only tax in world history to be both green and popular.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National