Irish Examiner view: It’s necessary to accelerate transition

Irish Examiner view: It’s necessary to accelerate transition

An electric vehicle charging point in Carrigaline, Cork. Just as the pandemic has exposed utterly inadequate broadband capability, the paucity of charging points is delaying conversion to electric.

The world’s energies are focussed on breaking the pandemic’s grip. How could it be otherwise? Nevertheless, other issues, other known knowns, are bubbling away. The climate crisis is foremost among those. Though the US’s reversal of the grim decision to quit the Paris Accord is welcome, there are many areas where we could, and must, do better at modifying our destructive, avoidable behaviour. Dramatically reducing emissions from carbon-fuelled transport is one. 

Electric vehicles will play an important role in that journey, which is more advanced in some countries than others. Transport analysts are increasingly optimists as electric vehicles move towards mass adoption. The falling cost of batteries drives that conversion. Global sales of electric vehicles rose by 43% last year and that trend is expected to accelerate, as they fall below the cost of comparable petrol or diesel models, even without subsidies. That rubicon is anticipated within fours years, but it has already been crossed in Norway, where tax breaks make electric cars the cheaper option. They have, irony of ironies, used their oil wealth to move away from oil. The market share of battery-powered cars hit 54% in Norway last year, but languished at around 5% in most European nations. Ireland did not even match that tiny ratio.

Of the 88,324 vehicles sold here last year, only 4,013 — 2.94% — were electric. Yet, electric cars were the only car type that saw an increase in sales. Overall, car sales were down by 25%, from 117,109 to 88,324. The pandemic had an obvious impact, but the impression that we are in a period of transport transition probably did, too.

That very modest growth in global electric cars sales is not having the necessary impact, as fuel-inefficient SUVs continue to grow in popularity. According to the International Energy Agency in France, the fall in oil consumption realised by the switch to electric cars was cancelled out by surging SUV sales. That charge is relevant to Ireland, where fashion decreed that 41.56% of new-vehicle sales (36,711) were SUVs. Over the past decade, SUVs were the only area among all energy-related emissions that increased in high-income nations. A reality check, or a tax sanction beyond carbon taxes, seems overdue.

Just as the pandemic has exposed utterly inadequate broadband capability, the paucity of charging points is delaying conversion to electric. So, too, is new-car pricing, which is beyond the reach of all but the most affluent. That inevitable switch will have consequences for government finances, too. The taxes gathered on petrol or diesel will fall as the switch to electric accelerates. How that shortfall is made up will be an electoral hot potato for whoever faces that challenge.

Norway has set the pace, but we are not keeping up. It is time for some radical, co-ordinated, and affordable proposals that address the core issue of reducing emissions. We are in dangerous denial already about the sustainability of farm emissions. We can hardly do that with transport, particularly private transport, as well. Despite that, it is hard not to imagine that the 88,324 Irish people who bought new cars last year have bought their last petrol or diesel car.

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