Burning Rubber


Norway is a country we look to for good policy ideas. I used to live in Aberdeen, the British hub of the North Sea oil and gas industry, and the comparison between how the two countries managed their industry reserves indicates that the Norwegians are exemplary at public policy. Refusing the siren call of privatisation, they preserved ownership of the fields and have used that resource to build up the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Made rich by fossil fuels, Norway spent money on social services and its education system and now is moving quickly towards carbon neutrality.

One of the signals that the Norwegian people are on board with a transition to a fossil-free future is how eagerly they have shifted to electric cars. As the New York Times reported last month, petrol stations are being colonised en masse by charging points.  Of the 13,342 new cars sold in May, 10,773 were zero-emission vehicles. A decade ago, just 3% of vehicles were electric. Today it is more than 80%.

How did they achieve it? It surely helps that they have a high GDP, but then again, Ireland has a high GDP. One key factor at play is tax relief. By increasing the taxes on polluting cars – justified of course because of the costs assumed by using them – and collapsing the taxes on zero-emission vehicles, Norway made it an economically straightforward decision.

On one level, this is an impressive development that should be celebrated. A few months before an unexpected global pandemic, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice published an issue of our journal, Working Notes, dedicated to the theme of risk. There, I wrote a piece about the risk of reducing serious political questions to the search for some clever “nudges” that would prompt a change in citizen behaviour without having to deal with the moral complexity of living well together. The centrality of taxation policy in the Norwegian e-shift might look like a nudge, but the key difference is that was paired with a commitment to infrastructure development and led in a large part by civil society groups. The nudge of a tax-break was just the final, decisive strike in a social transition comprising many elements.

At the heart of that essay, which is paired with Keith Adams’ great piece on how “evidence-based policy” is often nothing more than a slogan, is a claim that I think has persistent relevance. I argued that the technocratic urge to “fix” policy by manipulating people into the decisions that you think are best contains a dire threat. By refusing to think about – and critique – the broader ethical implications of what we are doing, we create a vast territory of “unknown unknowns”.

The example I use in the 2019 essay is speed bumps. Speeding in cars around pedestrians is simply an atrocious thing to do. There is no moral justification for driving faster than 50km/h (or even 30km/h) in a built-up area. Instead of asking how people can enact this simple moral principle, we avoid that conversation and build speed bumps to literally nudge them to slow down.

This is a ubiquitous solution now. Around nursing homes or playgrounds, primary schools or sports fields, in practically every housing development and on the main streets of our villages, we construct these little asphalt obstacles because it is easier than forming drivers who will handle their cars safely.

Speed bumps might be a good solution if it weren’t for the fact that the process of braking and accelerating repeatedly increases a car’s emissions. An effort to prevent injury to children and the elderly, and people who are chronically ill or pregnant, has ended up building in harm to all these groups.

Which brings us back to Norway. Due to the number of electric cars it now has, the country has become a hotbed of research into the low-carbon transition. What this research is revealing is that while emissions are reduced by electric cars, it doesn’t necessarily follow that pollution is reduced. The weight of electric cars is massively increased because of the batteries. In research also published in May, it has been shown that there is a new element in the harm caused by cars in our streets. Wear on tyres – from decelerating and accelerating over speed bumps and from the weight of a giant lithium-ion battery, along with ordinary degradation – is much more serious a threat than we have recognised.

The shift to electric cars is an essential element of our climate mitigation strategy. But to repeat a cliché that is fundamentally true: electric cars are not a plan to save the world; they are a plan to save the car industry. The same nudges and shifts that started the transition to zero-emission vehicles must now be tailored to induce smaller vehicle construction. All of the harmful elements of automobile travel must be factored into our policy equations.

We know that tailpipe emissions contribute to the climate collapse, and that small particulate emissions, from tyres as well as vehicle exhausts, cause and exacerbate respiratory conditions. Even if every car was electric, no one ever sped and no one ever got run down, motor vehicles would still be shortening our lives.

Transport comprises 20% of Ireland’s carbon emissions. We must reduce this to at least 15% by the end of the decade. Electric cars are undoubtedly one part of the solution. But the fact remains that the real climate-friendly vehicle – electric or not – is still a bike.