Joined Up Fuels

cars in snowThe green morals of UK motorists are currently being held to ransom by the government. The government hopes to increase vehicle taxes based on how much pollution a car produces – it’s a green tax, a carbon tax, call it what you will. Some drivers will end up paying twice as much each year to keep their car on the roads. The bigger the car, the theory goes, the more fuel it will use and so the more polluting it will be in terms of pumping out carbon dioxide and so the more vehicle tax you, the driver, must pay.

Apparently, big cars (4x4s, MPVs, big estates, and anything over 2.1 litre engine capacity, built before 2001, will be exempt from the approximate doubling of vehicle road tax that is imminent. And, that’s certainly a good thing. Not least because our family seven-seater has a 2.3 litre engine and was made in 1998. It all seems to make sense, at first glance. Who could argue with that? Such a tax increase will force drivers of big gas guzzlers to swap their Kensington Tractors for something a little more environment friendly.

But, it is not as if CO2 were the only pollutant, it’s not as if global warming were the only issue, and it’s not as if actually building new cars is a green process in itself. All those old-ish MPVs, are going to be sold on and new smaller cars bought, this drives the market, of course, and with an alleged recession pending, that might be a good thing in terms of economies. But, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation will show that building a new car to replace that suddenly unwanted Kenny Tractor will expend far more energy and waste far more resources than continuing to drive it guzzling gas or not.

It seems to me that there is very little joined-up thinking when it comes to environmental issues. No one ever sits back and says, hold on a moment, when plans to potentially scrap millions of potentially serviceable vehicles for the sake of a tax saving comes up in discussion.

More to the point, the school-run of supersized vehicles, queuing up and belching out fumes while darling Jocasta and Joshua are delivered obesely to school without having to walk, is to some extend a tabloid a stereotype. Some people rely on the extra seats and space afforded them by the bigger car. One car transporting six or seven people, at an albeit lower mpg, is surely better than two cars wearing out the tarmac even at 10-20% lower total fuel consumption. Hummers and sports utes excepted, of course, but you don’t see many of those on British streets.

Karl Hillman and Björn Sandén of the Department of Energy and Environment, at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, seem to recognise this need for complete Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) including so-called Well-to-Wheel studies as they apply to the transport sector in general.

They have investigated how well decisions are being made as we strive to reduce pollution and to meet climate-change targets. They suggest that rarely are time and scale related factors given any attention, which I read to coincide with my points about swapping big vehicles for small at least in terms of energy wasted in the process and the splitting of transportation into ever smaller units.

Writing in the International Journal of Alternative Propulsion, the Chalmers team discusses how road transportation is currently responsible for 20-25% of world carbon dioxide emissions and is almost entirely (99%) dependent on fossil oil, despite the occasional hybrid siting.

To reduce oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, different policies are now being implemented to increase the share of motor fuels based on renewable energy. In the short term, the European Union directive on the promotion of the use of biofuels or other renewable fuels for transport forces the member states to set targets for the minimum use of renewable fuels.

Perhaps the UK government plans to use the extra tax it raises from gas guzzlers to develop renewables for transport so that it can meet EU and international targets more effectively. Somehow I doubt it, with deficits on every table, state-adopted banks heavily in the red, and a media-inspired recession just round the corner, I suspect every last penny will have been accounted for before you could say rapeseed methyl ester.

Hillman, K.M., Sanden, B.A. (2008). Time and scale in Life Cycle Assessment: the case of fuel choice in the transport sector. International Journal of Alternative Propulsion, 2(1), 1. DOI: 10.1504/IJAP.2008.019689

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