Tesla's techno-cars are the right answer to the wrong question

von Dr. Peter Nagel

● By Nicola Spurling, Lancaster University ●

With the promise that Tesla’s Model S will “liberate its owners from the petroleum-burning paradigm”, this electric car is an example of just how far technological innovation could take us towards achieving carbon emissions reduction targets and reducing consumption of fossil fuels.

The technology is certainly impressive but it is concerning to see innovation of this kind being held up as the holy grail of a more sustainable future – especially if it comes at the expense of pursuing other ways to solve the problem.

One reason why the Model S has caused such excitement is its matching of conventional cars in performance, design and desirability. Many of the previous shortfalls of electric vehicles, such as acceleration, driving range and battery life have been addressed. The UK government’s target of “almost” every van and car being emission free by 2050 is starting to look more reasonable and the hype is alluring: technology has resolved the problem and life can carry on as normal.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that although the Model S produces zero emissions, electric cars use electricity and this has to be generated somehow. As a recent OECD report points out, electric cars displace their emissions to the energy generation sector, rather than remove them entirely. In this sense, zero emission vehicles would only arrive with an entirely de-carbonised electricity supply – which is hard to imagine.

Even the Treasury’s 2008 King review of low carbon cars, whose key recommendations underpin UK electric vehicle policy, recognised the extent of progress that was required if low-carbon electricity generation was to meet the 80% carbon emissions reduction target.

In environmental terms, electric vehicles are an answer to the wrong question ...

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