Government wakes from electric dream

So Philip Hammond’s policy — his one lonely policy* — of encouraging people to drive electric vehicles has been cut.  The government are still wasting money giving £5,000 subsidies to people who are already able to afford expensive new electric cars (though it will be interesting to see how much longer that lasts), but they will no longer be building a network of charging points, instead leaving owners to charge their vehicles at home.  The greenest ever government can’t even be bothered to keep up its greenwash.

The electric vehicles policy was never ambitious, and at best stretching the definition of “green”.  It envisioned replacing internal-combustion (ICE) vehicles with electric vehicles by 2050.  That’s forty years.  The twenty year old book that arrived on friday arguing for cycling as a political priority was already noting the overwhelming evidence for climate change and the need to do something about it.  For twenty years we’ve faffed around doing not much, and the government proposes that we leisurely carry on for another forty.  Never mind the fact that we have less than half that time to completely decarbonise if we are to avoid catastrophe.

And the extent to which electric vehicles are green also depends, of course, on how green their manufacture and the generation of their power is.  Our electricity, still mostly produced by burning a lot of imported coal and gas, is considerably greener than burning a lot of imported refined oil, but it’s not green enough to avert catastrophe if we don’t decarbonise it in the next couple of decades — a project that is already way behind schedule.  Even when we do decarbonise, the more we rely on electricity, the more dams, barrages, wind turbines, nuclear plants, and, least welcome of all, pylons we need to accommodate.

Of course, carbon is the only thing that matters about transport, right?  When I worked in a London office I would enjoy many a fun argument about people who chose to drive in London: “ah, but somebody who drives a little hatchback back and forth in zone 1 & 2 might have a smaller carbon footprint than somebody who commutes from Brighton or Bath by train every day.”**

Even if electric vehicles did solve the carbon problem, they would solve none of the others associated with car use — the nascent sedentary-lifestyle-related public health crises, the ongoing road danger scandal, the waste of urban land and spoiling of urban environment, the deleterious development patterns that exist in symbiosis with car dependency.  EVs do admittedly have one less method of directly producing air pollution.  Problems that can all be solved by shifting shifting journeys to active transport.

Active transport remains suppressed by political policy.  The lack of support for the types of interventions that are proven to work at enabling journeys to be switched to being made by bicycle; and the continuing policies that prioritise the motor vehicle and prevent pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets, as epitomised by Blackfriars Bridge, amount to government suppression of cycling and walking.

If we are to meet our carbon deadlines — not “targets”, deadlines — we need a plan that would, by 2030, tear down the barriers that all over the country are preventing people cycling.  That is, primarily, the environment.  Most people will never cycle on the streets as they are now.  We must change the streets, and we haven’t got time to faff around about it.

It’s not like Philip Hammond has any other policies to pursue.

(Consider that our cycling mayor, from the party that gave us the greenest ever government, is father of a cycling revolution which he hopes to give London an embarrassing 5% modal share for cycling by 2030 — an achievement that he intends to make at the same time as maintaining motor traffic flow at current level and without any meaningful changes to London’s streets.)

* I’m giving High Speed Rail to Osborne and Danny Alexander, since it’s they who will pull the plug when the time comes.

** Indeed, it is because of these arguments that I spend so much time discussing all of the other problems with motorised road transport and all of the other reasons to support the alternatives, and rarely mention the carbon and climate issue.