Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Any colour car so long as it’s green

Reading Time: 5 minutes

An urgent programme to tackle climate change is desperately needed. The latest scientific evidence indicates that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading climate prediction body, has been conservative in its analysis. In fact, we face a rapidly deteriorating situation.

The rate of melting of the polar icecaps is exceeding already gloomy forecasts and climate scientists are now saying that decisive action needs to be taken immediately if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided. A huge programme of public spending on the environment could introduce green technology rapidly and create millions of jobs around the world, because the technology will be relatively labour intensive.

An important aspect of such an initiative has to be to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from road transport. The reorientation, reinvestment, retraining and retooling needed for an effective green programme in the vehicle industry would also create sufficient work to halt the present catastrophic collapse in jobs in the sector.

An initial proposal for an environmentally sustainable programme for the car industry could contain the following points:

* Replace existing petrol- and diesel- burning vehicles with alternatives that use electricity and hydrogen to power them. Technologies to do this exist now (batteries and hydrogen cells), and the overall process can be largely carbon neutral if the energy needed to make the electricity and hydrogen is itself generated sustainably.

* Electric motors are quieter and less intrusive than those powered by hydrogen, and so the former are better suited to an urban environment, where battery recharging points can be easily provided. However, hydrogen-powered units will be needed for longer-distance journeys since the amount of energy stored in present-day batteries is limited, thus restricting the range of electric cars and vans.

* Convert filling stations from supplying petrol and diesel to hydrogen and build a network of recharging points for electric cars in urban areas.

* Make the process of switching to a new generation of vehicles sustainable by recycling the steel from existing cars. The energy required in the recycling operation – for example, for melting the steel – should be generated from green power sources. Step up the use of efficiency-improving lightweight but strong composite materials.

* Invest more in research and development to improve hydrogen cell and battery technology, and develop recyclable new materials.

* Retrain workers, retool and re-equip some car assembly and component plants to make buses, trams and light rail vehicles.

* Retool and re-equip some component plants to make parts for an expanding green energy industry, for example, advanced materials for windmill blades, bearings for turbines, control systems, etc.

To implement this programme will not require any scientific breakthroughs; all the technology needed exists now, including hydrogen cells. These cells not only have the capability to power vehicles but, in theory, aircraft as well, which could solve the particular environmental problems linked to air travel. Hydrogen power is not new, but the oil companies and their political representatives have tried to stifle its introduction for the obvious reason of preserving their dominant position in the energy market. Seven years ago George Bush said it would take 40 years to develop this technology, but a car using a hydrogen cell is now available, made by Honda, although its prohibitive price means it will not be widely used.

The potential of hydrogen energy is heavily downplayed by environmental pressure groups because most of them are deeply opposed to personal, powered transportation. It is true that a massive expansion of public transport must be a central component of a programme to cut greenhouse gasses. But if it is accepted that cars will have a useful role in a future society, albeit on a smaller scale, then the present industry will have to be made carbon neutral.

If the total number of vehicles on the road has to be significantly reduced then, in the long term, there will be fewer workers in the industry and some car workers will have to be retrained to produce buses and other forms of public transportation. Other workers, mainly from component factories, will have to be redeployed to different sectors, to use their skills to make parts for trains, trams and green energy machines, such as wind turbines. (This switchover will be made easier by modern robotised and computerised methods of manufacturing and design where, for example, machine tools and robots can be reprogrammed relatively easily and quickly to turn out new products). In the short and medium term, however, the replacement of a proportion of existing petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles by electric and hydrogen fuelled cars will require all the resources of the industry, and could mean that more jobs will be needed. To get an idea of the timescale for these jobs, even if as many as half the vehicles on the road went out of use and only half were replaced with green alternatives, the conversion process (to redesign, reprogramme, retool, retrain and manufacture) would still take at least five years.

For conversion to be carbon neutral it will not be sufficient just to turn out cars powered by electric motors or hydrogen cells. The electricity to charge the batteries that run the electric motors must itself be generated sustainably, which means that the energy industries must simultaneously be converted to using green energy (wind, wave and solar). More generally, the energy required to operate the production lines for the new green cars and to recycle the steel to make them, must also be green. Similarly, although burning hydrogen does not create any greenhouse gases, it does not occur naturally and so has to be manufactured, requiring an energy input that also needs to be sustainable.

Barack Obama and other capitalist leaders have proposed green initiatives to save the collapsing car industries, but so far to little effect. Even if some effective action is finally taken to bail out the vehicle sector, the ‘green’ measures proposed amount to tinkering in proportion to the environmental need, which is to eliminate all greenhouse emissions from cars. It is ruled out that the sums of money for the radical change needed will be forthcoming in conditions of economic crisis, because environmental issues will get pushed even further down the agenda in the battle for corporate survival. This was shown clearly in Britain, where the request of the LDV van company for government money to build a new generation of electric vans has not been granted, even though the amount involved is tiny compared to the bank bail-outs.

Technically, it is possible to rapidly implement a programme that has a goal of making the industry carbon neutral and in the process save jobs, but this will not and cannot happen in a private industry run for profit. To achieve this goal, socialist nationalisation will be needed of the car manufacturing sector. Because the energy consumed in making and running the new vehicles must itself be green, the power companies must convert to generating sustainable electricity, which also will only be possible with re-nationalisation.

Finally, like in all other aspects of the environment question, solutions have to be global, action in one country will have only a very limited impact on global warming. But, as has been pointed out many times before in this column, rivalries between the imperialist powers prevent meaningful agreement being reached and can only be overcome by sweeping away the whole edifice of capitalist rule internationally.

By Pete Dickenson


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