London says ‘I’m alright Jack’: but are clean electric vehicles actually an urban myth?

Posted on Posted in Chairman’s Blog

Lowering emissions in London by switching to electric vehicles can mean raising CO2 emissions elsewhere.

London has a serious problem with air quality. There are public health concerns with Particulate Matter (principally PM 2.5 micro-metre size and PM 10 micro-metre size particles). ‘PMs’ are the respiratory (asthma-inducing) and cancerous particulates emitted by diesel engines. There are also NOx and SOx (nitrogen and sulphur oxides). Ex-UK Chief Scientist Sir David King’s advice that diesel vehicles emitted less CO2 than petrol vehicles led to the upsurge of PM2.5s and PM10s. To be fair to him, he was misled by VW et al, who provided perfect test bed results but later, having failed to overcome the particulate problems, introduced ‘malware’ into their diesel engines’ computers to regain engine performance on the road. True, hydrogen- and electric-powered vehicles will mostly eliminate the pollutants. Hydrogen gas powering internal combustion engines creates zero ‘PMs’ but causes some NOx, and electricity from renewables (wind, solar and nuclear) to charge batteries for powering electric motors has no emissions. But what about CO2?

London is about to embark on radical electrification of buses and taxis. No doubt this will improve the air quality in London. But the electricity has to come from somewhere doesn’t it? And if the ‘somewhere’ is a fossil-fuel power station without CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) there are corresponding CO2 emissions at the power station that generates the electricity for London’s buses and taxis. However, as far as Planet Earth, is concerned, the CO2 is still being emitted – just not in London. This is a £136 million a year hidden carbon cost for London and is the tip of a £2 billion iceberg for UK transport as a whole. As a result, a clean-air London is, in effect,  saying ‘I’m alright Jack’, because ‘Jack’, aka Planet Earth, is in reality being harmed by London’s success. This is a worrying glimpse into the ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ world of London’s ‘green’ transport policies. There is more.

London, indeed Britain, is contemplating an expensive diesel buy-back or ‘scrappage’ scheme. This is daft. What London needs is revenue not expenditure. What London requires therefore is a carbon price to incentivise the transition from diesel- and petrol-powered vehicles to hydrogen- and electric-powered vehicles. Dr Amory Lovins, the futurist and one of Time magazines’ 100 most influential people, delivered his lecture ‘Disruptive oil and electricity futures’ last week to the Oxford Martin School. During Q&As he supported a carbon price to speed that transition.

PAL has scientifically determined such a carbon price. It is based on the loss and damage attributable to manmade climate change triggered by burning fossil fuels. This is the real ‘bedrock’ carbon price that, uniquely, is neither politically driven nor market led. By adopting this carbon price as a ‘London Clean Transport Charge’ on all diesel and petrol sold within the M25 London Orbital Motorway, London could fund infrastructure for fuelling hydrogen- and electric-powered vehicles. Diesel-fuelled vehicles would get charged the most, followed by petrol, then electric from CCGT (gas) plants, and lastly those hydrogen-fuelled vehicles where the hydrogen is made from natural gas (steam-methane reforming). A smart grid matching supply and demand could provide both hydrogen from electrolysis of water powered by renewables – to run internal combustion engines – plus electricity from renewables for charging electric vehicle batteries.

So rather than move London’s CO2 pollution to someone else’s doorstep, why not tax London’s vehicles’ CO2 emissions instead? That way, the new ‘London Clean Transport Charge’ can fund London’s buses and taxis to run on hydrogen (made from water not gas) or electricity (from renewables not gas). Then Jack, as well as London, will be alright.


Bruce Menzies, Chairman, Predict Ability Ltd (PAL)

© Copyright Predict Ability Ltd 2017. All rights reserved.

Bruce Menzies

Author: Bruce Menzies

Bruce Menzies is Chairman and co-founder of PAL. He founded Global Digital Systems Ltd that won the Queen’s Award For Enterprise 2011. Bruce is co-author of six books on geotechnics and geology, one of which won the British Geotechnical Association Prize 2002. He holds doctorates from the Universities of London and Auckland, and is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

London says ‘I’m alright Jack’: but are clean electric vehicles actually an urban myth? was last modified: June 23rd, 2017 by Bruce Menzies