Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The EU is not going to 'ban cars'

The credulousness of the UK public when it comes to all things EU-related was on full display Monday in the British media's coverage of the EU's much-awaited policy paper on transport.

Contrary to what you may have read in The TelegraphThe Daily Mail or the Evening Standard, the European Commission has not unveiled a plan to ban all cars from cities in 2050. This is just wrong. No journalist who actually looked at this policy paper could have reasonably come to the conclusion that the EU is banning cars. But the British tabloids never let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially one that fits their pre-defined narrative of how the EU oppresses the beleaguered British public.

The transport policy paper is a non-legislative roadmap that outlines a plan to reduce transport emissions while at the same time seeing an increase in transport over the next 40 years. It sets a goal of eliminating petrol-fueled combustion engines from vehicles meant for city driving by 2050. So, vehicles used for short-haul journeys within cities should either be electric or use alternative fuel in 40 years.

This doesn't exactly equate to a "ban on petrol cars" from city centres, as reported by the BBC and British broadsheet papers like The Independent. The policy paper specifically states that a ban on fossil fuels in city centres is not on the table. In any event, the EU doesn't have the power to impose such a ban anyway – and even if it did that is not the commission's stated aim. The idea is that over the next 40 years vehicles should be specifically designed for the type of distance they will travel. Short-haul vehicles designed for travel within cities should be electric, while long-haul vehicles would still use combustion engines. But this is just a statement of an objective, not actual policy. The idea is that EU and member state legislation in the coming decades should work toward that goal.

Of course it wasn't hard for the British media to misconstrue what was being proposed when senior British politicians seemed to be adding to the confusion. After saying the EU shouldn't meddle in the transport decisions of cities, UK Transport Minister Norman Baker told the BBC yesterday, "We will not be banning cars from city centres anymore than we will be having rectangular bananas." I'm not sure if his reference to one of the most ridiculous euromyths in Britain was supposed to be facetious, considering that the idea that the EU is banning cars is now the newest euromyth in the UK. If he was just being snarky, it seems to have gone over the BBC's head. His press office tells me it wasn't meant to be facetious. In any event, it was interpreted literally by the media and the auto industry, which has quoted him as saying the EU intends to ban cars. If that wasn't what he meant, he hasn't bothered to correct that impression.

It's a shame too because there are real issues to be debated here with this policy paper. But the British have once again allowed their discussion of it to be taken into Eurosceptic fantasy land. Carmakers have legitimate concerns about the technological neutrality of the paper. The commission had pledged to remain neutral about the best technological path to get to the headline goals, but the automakers say setting a goal of halving combustion engines in cities by 2030 and having none in 2050 ignores the efficiency savings that combustion engines can make.

On the other side, some businesses say that by not explicitly choosing a preferred technology (like electric or alternative fuels) the market is not getting a signal as to what kind of technology to invest in. They say this could result in different countries or regions investing in different vehicle technologies, which could create a mess down the line. Many would have preferred that the commission say all short-haul cars should be electric, rather than leaving the technology question open.

There is also the huge unanswered question of consumer acceptance. Many people who have cars and live in cities don't just use their cars to travel within the city but also use it to travel long distances to visit relatives or go on holidays. Right now such long distances would be tricky with electric vehicles, although technology for fast charging or for battery swapping stations is being developed and could be perfected within a decade. In the end it may end up that combustion engine vehicles meant for long distance travel will be much more expensive, so people who live in cities and don't drive long distances often will opt for cheaper electric vehicles. The technology will likely be there for it to be possible to take these on long trips occasionally, but it might require some amount of pre-planning and cost more.

The idea that we city dwellers may not be driving cars with combustion engines in 40 years is not all that radical when you think about it. Think of all the technological advances that have been made since 1970. Most auto industry analysts agree that a move away from the traditional combustion engine in passenger cars is inevitable – so why is the British media and political class treating this like an insane fantasy? 

This paper is important and it has huge implications for businesses and governments. By discussing it as if it's some absurd fantasy hatched in Brussels la la land, the British political class is shutting the conversation down in the UK – which could once again leave Britain daydreaming on the sidelines while important decisions are taken in Brussels.

I've done a quick scan of the headlines on this paper in the rest of Europe this week and no other country's media - not even the tabloids - have gone with this 'banning cars' headline. And in the US, though some right-wing media (notably Fox News) have picked up the 'car ban' scare stories from the UK, others have managed to report this quite accurately even from thousands of miles away. It's a shame that the UK so often lets its reflexive anti-Europeanism interfere with its ability to participate rationally in important debates.


Anonymous said...

Reflexive anti-Europeanism? Why wouldn't we have that? We've been an independent country for a thousand years, mate. We have the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and constitutional government. A lot of us are rather annoyed at remaining part of a corrupt, moronic institution. If most people were given a vote on whether or not to leave, we would.

Brad Zimmerman said...

The EU keeps politicians busy, fat and happy. When they're unhappy they start world wars... and I know which I'd prefer AND which is cheaper.

Anonymous said...

Good and accurate article and points out the ridiculousness, indeed downright mendacity, of sections of the British press when it comes to Europe.

There should be a debate about private car use in congested urban centres and its costs, social and environmental. It is not unreasonable to set non use of private petrol cars in city centres 40 years in the future as a policy goal.

Finally I notice the English continue to think England is Britain with their ahistorical chatter about Magna Carta.

Vie L'Anciene Alliance, vive La France, Vive L'Ecosse

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