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Why it isn't easy being green

Monday, March 6, 2017 5:25
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By Brian Clegg

Yes, please, if Tesla would like to give me one
(Image from Wikipedia)

As someone with real concern for the environment, I am convinced that electric cars are the future, and the sooner we can get rid of petrol and diesel, the better. When I was younger, my fantasy car was an Aston Martin – now it’s a Tesla.

However, as an official green heretic, I have to point out that, like almost all environmental decisions, it’s a bit more complex than it first appears. We need to apply logic as well as emotion. Electric cars (and trains, for that matter) are great in terms of emissions – provided they use electricity that itself is produced in an environmentally friendly fashion. It has been pointed out that in Germany, which has an aggressive ‘get rid of petrol cars by 2030′ policy, there could be a resultant increase in carbon emissions.

The trouble is that Germany is pretty well incapable of being totally green in its electricity production by 2030, because of its irrational decision to close its nuclear power plants. What about wind and solar? They’re coming on – but nowhere near fast enough. In fact, Germany has had to slow down its wind expansion because the existing wind supply is already proving disruptive to the grid because of its irregularity. The more you depend on wind, and to an extent solar, the greater need there is for supply that can be switched in quickly to cover troughs in generation.

As a result of the short-sightedness of their supply policy, if Germany does achieve 100 per cent electric cars by 2030 its carbon emissions will go up, due to the extra emissions from the dirty generation that will need to be used to support it.

I am not saying they should hold back on the electric vehicles – on the contrary, I hope we take a similar view of pushing the move to electric vehicles in the UK. (And reversing the terrible decision to cut short the electrification of GWR’s trains before reaching Bristol Temple Meads.) But such a policy needs to go hand-in-hand with a transfer of generation to non-emitting sources – which at the moment almost certainly means having more nuclear in the mix as well as more wind and solar.

Now Appearing is the blog of science writer Brian Clegg (, author of Inflight Science, Before the Big Bang and The God Effect.


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