Roads are the biggest threat to nature


Economics is the study of how societies use scarce resources to produce valuable commodities and distribute them among different people. Behind this definition are two key ideas in economics: that goods are scarce and that society must use its resources efficiently.

The big challenge of our age is how to live within the scarcity of a 1.5C carbon budget, so we can mitigate further global warming and avoid the tipping point of runaway climate change.

Part of this challenge is to examine with candour and depth some of our endemic habits that are needlessly frying the planet.

One of these habits, which could  be aptly described as an addiction, is cars. And they are increasingly becoming our biggest Climate headache.

Passenger cars are responsible for around 12% of EU CO2 emissions. Despite some technological ‘solutions’ like ‘clean diesel’ , traffic numbers and vehicle size have rendered any ‘advancement’ redundant. For the last 20 years the carbon emitted by cars has continued to increase and there are no signs that this is slowing down. We are driving ourselves off a Climate Change cliff.

The rational response is to acknowledge that this model is not working. that the desire to have individualised motorised transport is fundamentally flawed and that Europe needs to wean itself off automobiles as a core industrial strategy and transport choice.


In the United States private vehicles are an even bigger contributor to global warming. Vehicles are now America’s biggest CO2 source.  Collectively, 263.6 million US personal cars and trucks account for nearly 20% of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas. US also tops the list of vehicle miles travelled.


But unbelievably the answer is staring us right in the face: 69.1% of car journeys in the US are under 2 miles. These are short journeys that could be potentially cycled or walked with safe and well designed infrastructure. It is these short journeys that are frying the planet. But equally these short journeys offer redemption.

The global strategy so far has relied on switching personal vehicles to ‘lower emission’ Electric or hydrogen.

In a recent Facebook post, Donnachadh McCarthy challenged the carbon literacy of this approach. He warned that ‘every new EV is a carbon bomb lasting 100 years…..’

‘Electric vehicles are 15% higher for embedded energy but lower depending on source of electricity for full lifetime analysis but still far far too high and unaffordable’

Here is his analysis of embedded energy:

  • The average electric version of a compact car (e.g. Nissan Leaf) emits about 8 tons of carbon to manufacture it.
  • The average electric version of a sedan (e.g. Ford Mondeo) emits about 19.5 tons of carbon in manufacture.
  • The average electric version of a SUV (e.g. Ford Land-Rover Discovery) would take a whopping 39 tons to manufacture.
  • There are currently about 37.5 million vehicles licenced in the UK.
  • Taking an average of 17 tons per new electric vehicle (EV), to replace the entire fleet could take up to 637 million tons of carbon to manufacture.
  • This massive potential EV carbon bomb is more than the entire domestic UK carbon footprint of 530 million tons for everything for an entire year!
  • And this is without them being driven a single mile using UK electricity, which is still predominantly sourced from fossil fuels.
  • At most we can afford a personal carbon budget of 1ton/person per year.
  • Thus, buying a new EV would blow your entire carbon budget from 8 to 39 years!!
  • Globally 1.2 billion vehicles
    Embedded carbon replacement = 20.4 billion tons
    That is 14% of remaining 1.5C carbon budget, which is
    Remember 1.5C = lots of coastal cities under water and lots of pacific nations gone

The absolute imperative is to rapidly de-carbonise Energy. This means Conservation of energy is the forgotten half of the conversation. Renewables must not be a licence to waste, something that technocrats constantly fail to acknowledge and accept.

Squandering gains in clean energy transition by investing in high energy technology is irrational. Rapid charging, ICT connectivity and autonomy add high energy use to an already greedy low occupancy energy user.

Energy hogs like Google are sucking up renewables to power their operations for the year, This does not mean Google is “powered” by renewables but is buying renewable energy certificates (RECs), which ensure a certain quantity of wind and solar electricity is allocated to a given use. In other words, Google bought renewable power in quantities that match its consumption, even though that renewable electricity isn’t necessarily powering its operations directly

The company has such a massive energy appetite, matching its size: In 2015, for instance, it devoured 5.7 terawatt-hours of electricity, about as much as the city of San Francisco uses in a year. But it wants to make claims it is ‘carbon neutral’.

Among Google’s most voracious power guzzlers are the 15 data centers across the world that make up the “physical internet” — the servers running 24/7 to power the search engine and the cloud.

Across the United States, data centers are increasingly supplanting smog-belching factories as the humming engines of the economy as industries expand their footprints online. They’re also soaking up 3 percent of the country’s electricity. This is set to rise exponentially with automation of motor vehicles.

Some ecologists like Oliver Tickell  believe ultimately our future is ‘one of abundant, zero carbon, very cheap energy in which we do not need to worry either about energy cost, nor its carbon emissions.’

This is making a lot of assumptions. Roads are the biggest threat to nature and motor vehicle infrastructure threatens our ability to restore that natural green cover that will help absorb carbon.

Meanwhile solar and wind farms have their own environmental footprint beyond electricity, facilities like data centers also require land and consume water.

Here are some global strategic solutions I believe we should adopt in 2018:

  1. Strategically, to stand the best chance of mitigating climate change, we need to invest our limited carbon budget wisely
  2. The World Bank has recently declared it will no longer fund fossil fuel extraction
  3. The World Bank, IMF and Governments must not fund more roads or motor vehicle infrastructure.
  4.  The World Bank, IMF and Governents must prioritise and fund a global protected cycling network, safer crossings, junctions and infrastructure for people to cycle and walk
  5. And a global rail network and bus and tram transit network.
  6. We need to culturally and economically adjust to minimising motor vehicles.
  7. We must ban diesel and petrol personal vehicles from densely populated areas.
  8. We must be careful to only switch essential motor vehicles to Electric or hydrogen.
  9. We must cap motorised taxis and cabs and car sharing/hire vehicles
  10. We must Rationalise freight and delivery, switching all that is feasible to rail and last mile cargo bike delivery.