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Kepa Solaun, Professor of Economics of Natural Resources, University of Navarra, Spain

The end of the automobile?

Fri, 08 Apr 2011 10:09:26 +0000 Published in Expansion

The European Commission has published a Transport Plan for 2050, whose stellar measure is to eliminate gasoline and diesel cars from cities by that year.

The document proposes to reduce cars in large cities by 30% by 2030 and to make them disappear completely by 2050, to be replaced by electric, hybrid or hydrogen vehicles. For the moment, the plan is only a proposal, although it coincides in time with the controversy unleashed by the Environment manager of the Barcelona City Council, which suggested banning the circulation of vehicles over 10 years old. Finally, it was retracted, but the discussion is already on the street.

Are we really approaching the end of the era of the old gasoline or diesel car? Will this solve all the problems related to greenhouse gas emissions and put Europe on track to meet its ambitious 2050 targets? Let us not forget that the Roadmap to a carbon-free Economics leave , published in early March, stated that by 2050 it aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 95% compared to 1990 levels.

Emission reductions

There is no doubt that the electric vehicle has the potential to become a net source of significant greenhouse gas emission reductions. Obviously, this depends on the different models and technologies on development and is conditioned by the evolution of electric power generation. An electric car will never be emission-neutral; let's not forget that it requires energy and transformed materials to build it.

But it is true that, on the basis of a generation based mainly on renewable energies, it offers better results than traditional vehicles. In this sense, synergies can be produced if vehicle charging periods are carried out at night, coinciding with moments of leave demand, when renewable energies do not stop producing.
Globally, these calculations are not always extrapolable, given that many countries base their electricity generation on coal, fuel oil or other fossil fuels, so the net result may not improve or even worsen that of traditional fossil fuels.

Therefore, how renewables and distribution grids evolve in the coming years will be critical in determining the potential of this technology. So far, we have basically talked about greenhouse gas emissions, but there are obviously other transportation and environmental policy objectives at stake. The electric vehicle brings other positive environmental variables. There is a shift of pollutant emissions out of cities, from roads to power generation plants, which can have a very positive impact on local pollution.

However, mobility has a significant set of added externalities, in terms of accidents and health costs, as well as in terms of congestion and quality of life in cities. According to data of the European Commission, traffic accidents cause 127,000 deaths and 2.4 million injuries annually, making it the leading cause of death among young people aged 5 to 29. Some programs of study that monetize these externalities speak of costs in Europe that could rise to 650 billion euros in the year 2000.

In this sense, a marked technocratic bias can be perceived in the latest documents of the European Union, oriented towards the transforming potential of regulatory or technological instruments, as opposed to the promotion of behavioral changes.

This shift is also noticeable in the aforementioned Roadmap to 2050, which explicitly disregards awareness-raising and sensitization as a relevant path, in favor of legal and economic measures.

This probably responds to the European Union's own capacity for action, as well as to a certain weariness with the ineffectiveness of existing campaigns. The European Week of the mobility has been running since 2002 and in 2009 counted with the participation of 237 million citizens, but it has not proven to be effective in generating a change of habits.

However, when it comes to mobility, the only tool that can act on all the associated externalities is the change of citizens' patterns and the transformation from private transport models to collective transport. Evidently, these changes in behavior do not arise spontaneously, but are generated when the right climate exists, for which regulatory measures and appropriately targeted campaigns can be decisive.