The Transport Brief, powered by SESAR JU – The electric car problem

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There are few photo-ops more pathetic than a suited politician posing behind the wheel of a large vehicle.

The images tend to highlight the gap between the rarefied work of professional politicians and the work of professional drivers – see examples such as former-President Trump play-acting at driving a truck, or Boris Johnson imitating a bus driver.

Perhaps the most infamous example is US presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis, whose 1988 campaign was torpedoed by a photo of him guilelessly driving a tank.

Step up Joe Biden. Last week the septuagenarian president took control of a prototype electric Humvee, better known as a Hummer, racing the car around the General Motors factory floor in Detroit.

For those unfamiliar with a Humvee, it’s essentially a military vehicle that has been repurposed for use on everyday streets. It is a peculiarly American monstrosity, the type of oversized, ugly car that lives up to the worst ideals of a very narrow view of masculinity. It is crass, it takes up way too much space (particularly for European roads), and it is about as pointless a car as it’s possible to buy.

And soon you’ll be able to purchase an electric version.

President Biden was suitably impressed by the vehicle (he is, after all, a self-avowed “car guy”), but really, the vehicle illustrates the problems with electric vehicles as a panacea for our environmental transport woes.

Electric cars don’t produce tail-pipe emissions, and how quick they are to recoup the emissions expended in the manufacturing process depends on the type of electricity that is being used to charge them – run the car on coal-powered electricity and it takes a lot longer to justify from a green perspective than running it on electricity from a wind farm.

However, there are serious problems with cars that go beyond the fuel source used to run them.

For instance, consider the death toll of our car addiction. Globally, some 1.35 million people die because of car crashes every year – a figure that eclipses every other mode of transport by some distance. If planes fell out of the sky with such frequency, we wouldn’t tolerate it.

Cars also make areas less pleasant. Steel boxes careening around at high speeds aren’t conducive to letting children play. They aren’t conducive to taking a stroll. They aren’t conducive to spending time near them. In fact, it has been argued that the biggest destroyer of community is not political fragmentation but adding roads through our cities.

The fallacy of electric cars is that we can save the environment without changing a thing about our current driving habits. We just trade in the gas guzzler for an electric model and voilà – planet saved.

Of course, in reality, we need to rethink how we get from A to B in a more profound sense. E-bike sales are skyrocketing, as are the (still controversial) micro-mobility options such as e-scooters.

Imagining European cities with fewer cars and more alternative travel options requires political courage and is likely to provoke a backlash from the drivers’ lobby. But it would be a greener option than simply trading in our diesel cars for an electric version.

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How green are e-fuels?

Sticking with cars, what about keeping our current engines and running them on low-carbon fuels rather than going electric?

With interest in hydrogen and low-carbon fuels growing, the EU is preparing to launch an EU-wide database to certify the carbon footprint of low-carbon fuels in a harmonised way. The proposal is expected in December.

The European Commission is pushing for a (de facto) ban on the sale of all polluting vehicles by 2035, which was widely seen as boosting the shift to electric cars. However, some countries – notably Germany – feel internal combustion engines could continue to operate, powered by electro-fuels.

Currently, e-fuels must meet a 70% emissions reduction criteria to be certified as green under the EU’s finance taxonomy. However, if EU zero-emission vehicle proposals are passed, e-fuels would need to be fully carbon neutral to be used in cars.

Read more about plans to increase transparency and traceability in the EU market for low-carbon fuels below.

Americans warned against travel to most of Europe

The number of COVID cases in Europe is rising with unsettling speed. In response, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expanded its list of European “Do Not Travel” countries, advising Americans against a trip to Germany and Denmark.

Much of Europe is already on the CDC’s list. Other European countries that Americans are being asked to avoid are: Austria, Bulgaria, Britain, Belgium, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Ukraine.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said European countries must work harder to prevent the coronavirus from spreading further as deaths and new cases surge. The increase is bad news for the travel and tourism industry, which will be watching developments with alarm.

Read the full story below.

A roundup of the most captivating transport news.

EU plans single database to certify carbon content of hydrogen, low-carbon fuels

The European Commission is preparing to launch an EU-wide database to certify the carbon footprint of hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels in a harmonised way.

Only nine EU countries still escape the US ‘Do Not Travel’ COVID-19 warning

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the State Department on Monday (22 November) added Germany and Denmark to an already long list of European countries where US nationals are advised not to travel, because of a rising number of COVID-19 cases in those countries.

EU Ombudsman corners Commission after denial to unveil used cooking oil data

The European Commission has until February 2022 to comply with the EU Ombudsman’s recommendation to provide data related to the origins of imported Used Cooking Oil (UCO) biofuel in the EU, amid concerns over alleged fraud cases.

The Matosinhos Manifesto: Accelerating the use of space in Europe

The European Space Agency (ESA) has taken a giant leap in launching the Matoshinhos Manifesto that will accelerate the use of space in Europe. As a resolution, it was unanimously approved by the Council of Ministers, ushering in what it is hoped will be a new era for exploration and discovery, writes Josef Aschbacher, director-general of the ESA.

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