The desire to make all cars “zero emission’ by 2030 ignores how reliant the country will be on coal-fired power stations

Nick Cullen

Sometimes I am astonished with the ability of politicians of all shades and nationalities to ignore the lessons of our past.

A case in point is the announcement by the German Bundesrat that it wanted the country to change completely to all electric cars by 2030 – that’s in 13 years’ time. There is nothing wrong with that in itself – particularly as it will reduce emissions from transport and help improve local air quality – superficially this may appear a great idea. However it should be viewed as neither a climate friendly nor a selfless act as it will increase carbon emissions and will also help the German car industry.

At a time when the UK will have finally closed all its coal-fired power stations, Germany will be increasing its coal burning capacity, have closed its nuclear fleet of power stations – unless they can introduce truly awe inspiring amounts of storage and renewable generation. Germany will end up burning more coal to power this new fleet of electric cars. 

Germany will be increasing its coal burning capacity, have closed its nuclear fleet of power stations

It’s similar to the rush to diesel engines, only in reverse. In the 1990s the EU encouraged the switch to diesel in order to reduce the CO2 emissions from cars and transport, but ignored the impact on local air pollution. It was not as if there wasn’t any evidence that diesel engines caused harm. Diesel engines are responsible for particularly dangerous micro-particulates, those nasty PM2.5 and PM10s that cause heart and lung problems. The really sad aspect of this is that there was plenty of evidence as far back as 1993 pointing to the negative health impacts. And yet the EU, Germany and the UK ignored the evidence and encouraged a switch. We are now living with the consequences.

So why do we make these disastrous decisions seemingly ignoring the wider ramifications? It is certainly true that at the time of the switch to diesel, CO2 emissions were perceived to be the bigger issue. Politicians wanted to be seen to reacting to the danger. It would have been a selfless politician who argued that reducing car CO2 emissions wasn’t a good idea, particularly when the options for reducing emissions quickly were limited. The switch was an early, easy win given the relatively short time lags in car replacement and with dangers of increasing pollution levels sometime in the future why worry?

Perhaps it is a step too far to suggest that vested interests saw the switch to diesel to be commercially advantageous. However, looking for someone to blame other than those responsible for ignoring the broader impacts would condemn others to repeat the mistake. It simply illustrates that, particularly with environmental concerns, the picture is rarely simple and policy should be based on a broad systemic understanding of the world around us. 

So it seems to me that the German politicians desire to have ‘zero-emission’ cars will ignore the impact of additional coal burning on CO2 emissions.

In the short-term it might be good for German cities and their citizens. It will also be good for the German car making industry – but sadly will be very bad for the rest of the world.

Nick Cullen is a partner at Hoare Lea