November 18, 2007

It’s important to be aware of the limits, and not think that new technology alone is the answer.

A report last week in Israeli business paper The Marker about Israel’s Finance Ministry’s willingness to consider waiving purchase tax on electric cars produced in Israel shows that the environmental consciousness revolution has even reached the bureaucrats who determine the fate of our economy and society.

Environmental activists who are in contact with treasury officials have been reporting for some time that they found their interlocutors fairly open to change and willing to cooperate. Given the enormous influence the state wields in its role as regulator, even in a world that has ostensibly been completely taken over by the market economy, this is a welcome development.

It is therefore positive that treasury officials identify the electric car as something that could herald economic and environmental progress.

Getting rid of the internal combustion engine would reduce vehicles’ carbon emissions, reduce their contribution to global warming and moderate the level of air pollution in our cities. Nevertheless, it is also important to be aware of the limits of this solution, and not make the mistake of thinking that new technology alone can save the world.

The batteries that will power the electric car will require ‘new’ electricity, above and beyond what is currently being produced and consumed. In Israel, this means burning more coal and gas at yet more power stations.

The result will be a transfer of particulate pollution and carbon emissions from cars’ exhaust pipes to those of the power stations. That will reduce air pollution and health problems in the heart of our cities, but will not completely eliminate vehicular carbon emissions.

Moreover, the production of private cars, regardless of what kind of engine they have, is an energy-intensive, heavily polluting process; the roads on which cars must travel swallow up valuable municipal lands; and travel by private car actually makes transportation more cumbersome (traffic speeds within large cities have remained more or less unchanged for the last 100 years).

Dependence on private cars enables, and sometimes even requires, suburbanization, which is environmentally problematic. Cars also generate an aggressive consumer culture that increases ancillary consumption and widens social gaps. And at the end of their lives, cars leave heaps of scrap metal and hazardous waste behind them.

Getting the most out of the technological breakthrough produced by Shai Agassi and his partners will therefore require comprehensive, system-wide thought about transportation and energy. A net increase in the number of cars, on top of the enormous number already traveling Israel’s roads, would produce a net increase in carbon emissions and merely contribute to the global warming crisis.

Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that cheap electric cars come in place of conventional cars, not in addition to them. It is also necessary to ensure that families capable of affording such automobiles will not be tempted to buy a third or fourth car, just because it is cheap and seems convenient.

In addition, we need to make sure that the expected growth in electricity consumption, in order to power these cars, is combined with energetic action to reduce wasteful electricity consumption. Studies have shown that a savings target of 20 percent is feasible. It is also necessary to work to integrate solar- and wind-powered electricity production into Israel’s energy economy. Here, too, a target of 20%, as in Europe, is realistic.

And, most importantly, the promise held out by innovative road transportation must not lead treasury officials to put all their eggs in this basket and neglect their responsibility to support the efforts by municipalities, the Transportation Ministry and the Environment Ministry to upgrade bus service and energetically promote rail-based mass transit systems.

(Originally appeared in Ha’aretz)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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