I have suggested before that electric cars were not quite the panacea they seem to have become for our politicians. I know President Macron said he wanted French cars all electric by 2040 (although India thinks they’ll have the same 10 years earlier). And Britain copied the French timetable. So far so aspirational.
But in fact whilst I have also earlier celebrated Cornish Lithium the situation for the other battery essential, cobalt, is even worse than previously thought.
60% comes from the corrupt and ill-governed ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo DRC where mining is a sort of gold rush for the best placed.The chart below from the article shows that there is not much competition:
But the revelation that “If each of the billion cars on the road were replaced today with a Tesla Model X, 14 million tonnes of cobalt would be needed—twice [the] global reserves. ” is rather worrying. So either further supplies have to discovered, technology has to change, or electric cars are not quite the cheap, climate friendly panacea we had hoped.
Indeed electric cars, whilst representing a less polluting alternative to their petrol equivalents still ’emit’ particles but these will come from road and road painting abrasion and tyre abrasion – all of which amount to very small particulates, which are still problematic in towns, particularly in dry weather. And of course asbestos brake linings are responsible for the most harmful particles of all. In short, electric cars are green – er but not great.
If we are going electric we must go for trains. Regenerative braking allows you to reuse power, steel wheel on steel rail is much more frictionless than rubber on road, long distance journeys are bound to be faster without the 20-30 minute refuelling time every 150 miles or so, and for similar travel flows railways generally use less land than roads. Additionally trains are much safer (although, admittedly roads are responsible for many more journeys) 5 are killed and 66 seriously injured every day on our roads whilst on rail the daily average figures are just under 1 killed (including suicides, which account for the overwhelming majority) and just over over 1 seriously injured (including trespassers, attempted suicides and passengers on board trains). Electric trains also mean frequency can be improved for a marginal cost and acceleration is always much improved.
Nonetheless the November budget talked up electric cars but our illustrious Minister of Transport has cancelled or postponed much of the rail electrification that was previously promised, whilst indicating, if I recall, a desire to reopen previously closed lines for which there was alas, unsurprisingly! no budget.
He then increased the order for new bi-mode trains.These either have to lug around useless diesel engines and fuel when they are running on electricity or useless electrical collection and transforming equipment when they are running on diesel. They are therefore a compromise and always less efficient than thoroughbred competitors. They are more time consuming and complex to maintain and less reliable than pure electric and quite a bit heavier so wear the track more quickly. Indeed for those interested, there is a written summary of the pretty devastating disadvantages of not electrifying from Cardiff to Swansea here.
The same arguments will be true for the failure to electrify the Transpennine route, one which has frequent stops and a demanding terrain so is even more suited to electrification. Seemingly we’ll just have to put up with a Great Northern Forest to soak up the excess CO2 instead – albeit only £5.7 million of the £500 million required has been actually allocated by the government.
So we are being hoodwinked by not so green electric cars, whilst the already fairly green travel method of the train could be made much more so through electrification and without the depletion of scarce mineral resources. HS2 will of course be electric, but even if it gets built it will not be coming to a station near you anytime soon. We need lasting investment for the future and our ordinary local lines to turn electric as is progressing in Scotland.
If the government want to convince us of their green credentials when they’re thinking electric travel, they should be thinking train.
Both safer and greener than electric cars – and when people walk to and from stations they keep fit. That’s three plusses: isn’t that enough for this government?