Opinion: the main reason we should favour electric vehicles over cars that run on petrol or diesel has to do with health advantages rather than climate change or traffic jams

How many people reading this piece have been stuck in a traffic jam? Most of you, probably. These days, I have first-hand experience that it can take an hour to do a Google-predicted ten-minute journey in Cork’s morning rush hour traffic. But whatever their environmental strengths, Electric Vehicles (EV) will not solve this problem.

In 1980, the year Bob Marley made his only concert appearance in Ireland, there were about a million cars on Irish roads. Now there are over double that number, with 99.9 percent of them powered by petrol, diesel or hybrid. That means just one in a thousand cars here in 2017 are pure plug-ins. This fraction is far lower than the 2008 government prediction of one in ten by 2020, an amount which has since been reduced to one in a hundred.

The reasons why we should move from fossil-fuel vehicles to electric technology are well-known. A recent RTÉ Prime Time programme cited climate change, but the real reason for ditching cars that run on petrol or diesel in this country is for health reasons caused by air pollution.

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The electricity that powers EVs has to come from somewhere. Power stations need fuel and in Ireland, that means almost entirely carbon-based sources. In other words, it is not just about the amount of carbon dioxide released directly into the atmosphere by conventional vehicle exhausts, as transport emissions include vehicle manufacture as well as fuel production and combustion contributions.

Recent European Environment Agency figures show that cars powered by petrol or diesel give carbon dioxide releases, which are about the same as from EVs if the electricity to power them is generated by a typical mixture of gas, coal, nuclear and renewables. On the other hand, when the electricity generation results exclusively from coal-burning power stations, EVs are responsible for much more greenhouse gas production than "normal" cars. 

The real climate change advantages for EVs only arise if power generation results entirely from renewables like solar and wind. Then, the total CO2 release for EVs is about one third of that from conventional cars.

About 50 percent of the energy generated in the UK is from renewables. In Ireland, it is about 10 percent which means that 90 percent of our energy requirements are based on fossil fuels. Currently then, climate change advantages to justify EV usage in Ireland are negligible.

The real health advantages EV provide are that they do not emit nitrogen dioxide roadside and they release much less particulate matter (PM). The list of ailments and diseases attributed to these two types of air pollutants grows daily: cardio, cancer, diabetes, dementia and kidney failure are just some I read about this week.

There are no PM exhaust emissions from EVs, although they do have tyres and brake pads so there will be some solid material released from them. In this respect, they are no different from conventional cars, trucks and buses. But because the combustion process to power EVs originates from remote power stations, the air pollutants released can be scrubbed out or become dispersed and diluted well away from pedestrians or drivers.

Go electric then? We should, but there will be financial implications. Under the current taxation model, the government will take a hit running into billions of euro every year with revenue lost on petrol and diesel sales. One way of filling the gap is to charge a road-use distance tax to be assessed by installing a microchip in your EV with data downloaded each year. There may be no alternative to that approach once fully solar-charged vehicles requiring no centrally generated electricity are available. 

With or without EVs, we will remain trapped in traffic jams unless local Irish road management and public transportation systems improve dramatically. It is not in a good state at the moment, especially in Galway city where drivers spend 17 percent of their driving time in traffic congestion. This figure is far worse than the percentages calculated for London (13 percent), Los Angeles (13 percent), Paris (13 percent), Dublin (10 percent) and Cork (8 percent). At least it is better than Bogota (32 percent).

The worst aspect of the traffic congestion problem in Galway city is that the local council does no real-time air monitoring at present. Therefore, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians cannot make informed choices about potential health effects, especially if they are at-risk, like asthmatics. Get a grip, Galway.

At least with EV transport the climate change and air pollution problems we face have a chance of being eliminated. In fact, I’m confident, in the words of Marley, that every little thing is gonna be alright.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ