Electric cars are being championed as a win-win solution in EU policy. Does the innovation hold up to scrutiny?
Transport is the most unsustainable sector in the EU - every year emissions increase, the number of cars on the streets increases and, what's worse, it is almost entirely powered by fossil fuels, produced in the vast majority with imported crude oil. Finding a way to change transport pattern would simultaneously improve the local environment (reducing pollution in cities), have positive effects on the global environment (reducing GHG emissions) and improve security of energy supply. So it comes as no surprise that the EU has been working to find sustainable alternatives. Electric vehicles (EVs) have gained center stage in the sustainable transport debate, and for seemingly good reasons: being powered by electricity, they would allow for a higher integration of renewables into the energy system. The electricity, in turn, could be produced locally. What's more, the cars would dramatically reduce local emissions and improve citizens health. The barriers to electric vehicle implementation are mostly seen as being technical or financial: the vehicles are too expensive and there are not enough charging points, leading to what has been defined as "range anxiety". To address this, the EU proposed an Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive in 2014, to ensure enough charging points are available to drivers who want to go electric. And the measures, paired with strong advertisement from car industries, seem to be having their desired effects. The number of electric cars bought each year is increasingly considerably, with Norway often being taken as the prime example of good electro-mobility: in 2018, 30% of all cars bought in the oil-rich country were all-electric.
Why do we want to implement electric vehicles in the first place?
Let's take a step back and ask ourselves why do we want to implement electric vehicles in the first place? Statistics on electric car uptake may look less promising if we choose to view them in a different light. While it is true that the share of electric vehicles sold each year is growing, it is also true that the number of cars per capita is also increasing year by year. This forces us to move away from an optimistic, technological debate, and to start framing the problem from a system's perspective. This kind of perspective is essential if we want to stop viewing sustainability problems as a matter of emissions, and start viewing them as complex realities linked to a nexus of dimensions. This is what we've been trying to do in MAGIC, and we started addressing the case of electric cars building on a very fundamental question: why do we want more electric cars on the street? This may seem like an obvious question, but all too often scientific enquiry focuses on how to do things and neglects to problematize why we are doing them in the first place. To address this question, we have turned to EU policy documents, and conducted a text analysis of all EU policy linked to sustainable transport, to build a map of (i) the different solutions envisioned by the EU and (ii) the different problems that these solutions are supposed to solve. Preliminary results of the analysis can be found here. We refer to different justifications used in policy documents as narratives, making the distinction between policy narratives (what the problem is), local ones (how the problem should be solved) and master ones (why this is a problem). This triadic relation allows us to frame different types of questions in relation to the specific technology of electric cars:
- What are the goals linked to the implementation of electric cars?
- Do electric cars achieve all these goals?
- Are all the higher level goals (master narratives) possible at the same time?
- Do electric cars lead to other effects that are under-represented in EU policy?
- Are there alternative measures that are under-represented in EU policy which could also achieve these goals? If so, why are they not as dominant in policy discourses?
What we have done and what we will be working on
Work on this innovation has been going on for a while (good things take time!) and some outputs are already available: a short conference paper and a short video, part of our #UncomfortableKnowledge series (see links below). Stakeholder engagement took place in Barcelona on 20 May 2019 and in Brussels on October 9, as part of the European Week of Regions and Cities (see below). We are currently finishing the analysis outlined above, and will keep you posted through our twitter account on when it is published.
CONFERENCE PAPER: Electric vehicles in the EU: between narrative and quantification
STAKEHOLDER EVENT: Electric cars or social innovation in mobility and transport?, 20 May 2019, Barcelona, Spain
STAKEHOLDER EVENT: Future Urban Mobility: mobilising different knowledges in the debate, European Week of Regions and Cities, 9 October 2019, Brussels
STAKEHOLDER EVENT: Electrical vehicles or new mobility practices: evaluating the quality of current narratives, 03 July 2019, Cerbère, France
WEBINAR DEBATE: El cotxe elèctric. Alternativa viable? (in Catalan), 18 June 2020, online event