Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for July 22nd, 2008

Fuel cell cars still 15 years away at best: study

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Reuters via Environmental News Network

The study concluded that the best way to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years would be a range of alternatives, including hybrids and improvements in the efficiency of gas-powered combustion engines.

“We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in these technologies because they will probably all be important in the future,” said Michael Ramage, a retired Exxon Mobil researcher who chaired the fuel-cell study committee.

It would have been better had Reuters actually provided a link to the study itself. And the composition and brief of the committee seems to be worth investigating too. But the point is well made: hydrogen is not ready for prime time and needs huge subsidies.

What is not said of course is that the car itself is not a sustainable idea. The US interstate highway system is literally crumbling. Cities cannot cope with traffic congestion – and the suburbs were never designed to cope with expensive transportation fuels. So looking for a new kind of car is just a way of avoiding the important questions.

North America does not just need to wean itself off cheap oil, it also has to come up with ways of getting around which are not predicated on car ownership. That means tackling the need for lots more transportation options. And as far as technology goes, we know that there are much more efficient systems that have been around for years and work well. So if government funds are going to be spent, there are much more effective, workable options than hydrogen or ethanol.

Electric trains and streetcars served America well before the car took over, and can do again. And electricity can be made in all sorts of ways that do not require fossil fuels. Land use will be slow to adapt – but will. It has to because low density, car oriented development is now a thing of the past, based on economics that no longer apply.

The sensible thing to do is to allow the bridges to fall down – and in many cases, blow them up before someone gets hurt. Reallocate existing road space to transit – and in urban areas make walking and cycling the preferred means of transportation. Copenhagen started doing this 25 years ago. This is a model which we know has worked well. This pattern of change does not require a leap of faith, or future technological changes. We have to stop throwing money at R&D of dubious value, and start investing in building systems which we know will work.

Cars will be around for some time, and will gradually become more civilised. Ownership of a car will become less important – due to innovations like car co-ops, or the funding arrangements planned for Israel’s new battery powered cars based on cell phone contracts. Urban areas will adapt – they always have done – and none of this will happen overnight. But the very first thing to do is stop building and expanding car infrastructure. We simply don’t need it.

UPDATE Wednesday July 23 The Guardian has a piece on the British Motor Show which opens tomorrow and is emphasizing how green the industry is getting. Except that it is isn’t doing very much, very fast. Most of the really innovative vehicles are years away from production. The y clearly are not taking the threat of increasingly rapid climate chaneg seriously – and are not even responding to the inevitability of passing peak oil and having very few years of gasolione left to play with.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 22, 2008 at 8:03 am

Climate Crisis: Roosevelt Revisited

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Truthout – Andrew Simms BBC News

New and cautious calculations by the New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) climate change programme suggest that we may have as little as 100 months starting from August 2008 to avert uncontrollable global warming.

Nothing short of the rapid and wide-scale re-engineering of the economy will be sufficient. Radical change, though, is needed anyway because of the credit and energy crises; the latter driven significantly by the imminent peak and decline of global oil production.

No simple techno-fix exists that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast or far enough to solve the problem.

The answers are going to be economic, political and behavioural. Many countries, not just the UK, are going to need to learn the art of rapid transition.

Lessons From History

The Green New Deal group formed in the summer of 2007 against this background, but before the current full-blown economic crisis.

It took inspiration from President Roosevelt’s response to the 1929 Wall Street financial crash.

Roosevelt is still villified, of course, in right wing circles. But the crisis we face is actually bigger than the Wall Street Crash – and anyway the New Deal was actually directed at the 1931 banking crisis which was almost identical to the present credit crunch.

The New Deal was also about one country – and the present crisis affects the whole world. Quite apart from the difficulty of getting the corportations on side, there are still governments who do not believe that this crisis is their primary concern, and who have shown absolutely no interest in cutting back on their emissions, for fear of slowing their present rapid rates of economic growth.

Even so, we need a ray of hope somewhere, and maybe this idea will gather support. Something has to be done, and there is very little time left.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 22, 2008 at 7:44 am