Discomfort one hundred
Gloria and Claire are off to see an energy statistician who lives on the other side of London.
The pair hit the road – and the road hits back. Will they ever reach their destination?
Is an end to fossil fuel folly in sight?
It was one of those scorchers. Low on air quality, high on noxious oxides. Claire and Gloria had been stuck in a traffic jam for longer than either cared to remember. The spanking new highway had been built to relieve traffic congestion – and was already making its mark as a long car-park.
‘This is unbearable,’ said Gloria, somewhat to Claire’s surprise. ‘Shall I open the window?’
‘Okay,’ Claire replied. ‘Let them all in...’
‘Ah, here they come... Carbon dioxide – to give us global warming; nitric oxide, nitrous oxide – to eat our lungs’ spongy structure and give us bronch-itis and emphysema; sulphur dioxide, sulphur trioxide – for a spot of acid rain; peroxyacylitrate – for swelling of the larynx, irritation of the eyes and possibly cancer; carbon monoxide – the suicide’s favourite – for headaches, dizziness, confusion and ultimately death...’
‘Thank you for the information...’ said Gloria tersely. There was a pause. ‘Anyway, why didn’t we go by public transport?’
‘There used to be a rail service – before privatization...’
They edged along, then ground to a halt again.
‘It could be worse,’ said Claire cheerfully.
‘Well, in Bangkok – which has probably the worst traffic jams in the world – the best-selling item is the Comfort 100. A car potty. I hear they have recently introduced another model, a twin version called the Comfort 150.’
Gloria squirmed uncomfortably.
There was a blast of horns. Two drivers were snarling at each other, engaged in a bout of road-rage. ‘Constipation induced?’ wondered Gloria.
‘It’s true,’ said Claire, with a sigh. ‘Hell is other drivers...’
They edged along again, reaching a dizzying 20 miles an hour at one point. Coming up to a Shell filling station they saw graffiti of a hanging man painted on the hoardings. ‘Save Ken Saro Wiwa’ the slogan read.
‘I need to fill up but I’m not buying from there...’
‘Are there any oil-producing countries that don’t have a bad human- rights record?’ pondered Gloria.
‘A colleague has been working on the connection with fossil fuels and tyranny.’
Gloria laughed. ‘Oh come on! You can blame fossil fuels for a lot but...’
‘Well think about it. Major oil-producing nations: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Nigeria, Indonesia, Burma. All of them are ruled by dictatorships with appalling human-rights records with only muted international criticism because the world needs their oil. It figures: a concentration of energy resources means a tremendous concentration of political power. And the sudden wealth from petro-dollars only encourages corruption. And it goes even further...’
‘Does it have to?’ said Gloria weakly, recognizing the importance of what was being said but feeling herself somewhat oppressed by a combination of exhaust fumes and the way in which Claire’s voice was rising as she spoke.
JOHN MAIER / STILL PICTURES
‘Yes. Look at the power of the oil multinationals. Companies like Texaco, Amoco and Shell call the shots because the world’s economy depends on them. Government subsidies keep oil prices down in the industrialized North, enabling it to maintain a productive advantage over the South. Oil importers of the South pay far higher prices. Gasoline and diesel cost more in India, Ethiopia and Kenya than in the US. Now if the sources of energy were decentralized, if it came from the sun and the wind, that would lead to greater political decentralization too...’
‘Mmm,’ said Gloria, who felt a headache coming on. Whether thanks to carbon monoxide or Claire’s hectoring she was not sure. The traffic edged along again. She tried to stretch her legs. ‘They don’t make cars for Africans!’ she yawned, flicking through a bunch of papers Claire had given her.
‘I don’t believe it!’ she suddenly exclaimed. ‘Have you seen this? “China has announced plans to move towards an automobile-centred transport system. There are proposals to ban bicycles in some Chinese towns because they get in the way of cars!”’
‘The Chinese are buying cars like there’s no tomorrow, and at this rate maybe there won’t be.’
‘They want what people in the West have got. It’s outrageous!’ Gloria cast Claire a sideways glance.
‘It’s true that when it comes to carbon emissions we haven’t a leg to stand on. We produce three-quarters of the stuff...’
‘And I don’t see that many bicycles on your roads. Driven off by the cars? Effectively ‘banned’ already? Yours is hardly a people-centred transport policy...’
‘Ah, that’s a good one,’ interrupted Claire. ‘The one you are holding now. It’s a report from Curitiba, Brazil. A success story – and very much people- centred.’
The Curitiba Cure
Today there are 50 kilometres of exclusive corridors for express buses. If the integrated system did not exist, Curitiba would need 28-per-cent more buses and the city would be more congested and polluted with a more expensive and less efficient public transport system. People who had cars or could afford taxis would use them, causing much more congestion and pollution. Just business as usual in the average Third World city!
‘But people love their cars,’ protested Gloria. ‘I don’t think you are going to stop them using cars just by providing good public transport. And even public transport is pretty polluting... I mean, look at that bus...’ She pointed to a wheezing monster that had just issued a choking, black cloud.
‘Ah well, that’s where zero-emission vehicles come in,’ said Claire resolutely.
‘Ah yes, I’ve heard of them... electric cars that crawl along at a snail’s pace and take hours and hours to recharge...’
‘Not any more. Scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney have produced a car battery that can be recharged in a matter of minutes. But actually, I think the future may lie in hydrogen fuel-cell rather than electric battery-driven vehicles.’
‘Oh, yes and what pollution does that produce?’
‘Nothing. Just water...’ Claire foraged further in her bulging briefcase. ‘Here it is. I pulled this off the e-mail just before we came out. It’s a piece by a researcher called Ben Lane.’
Road to Zero
The bad news is that the big three US car makers – Ford, Chrysler and General Motors – have launched a sustained lobbying campaign to scale down California’s demands. They argue that electric cars cannot match the performance of petrol cars and that without a technological breakthrough, electric cars will stay unsold in the showrooms. But technological breakthroughs have already been made. There are a number of possible clean-fuel options but the one that is really capturing the imagination of environmentalists and vehicle designers is based on the simplest, lightest and most abundant element in the Universe – hydrogen.
Hydrogen can be produced by simply running an electric current through water to split into hydrogen and oxygen. This is called electrolysis and we have known how to do it since 1800. Hydrogen provides three times more energy than petrol and can be released in a modified internal combustion engine. Most important of all, it emits no noxious fumes – just pure water!
A recent breakthrough has opened up a new possibility – which involves doing away with the internal combustion engine altogether and using a lot less hydrogen. Instead a Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell is used. This device is made up of a group of metal hybrids – including iron and titanium – which absorb hydrogen. The gas becomes part of the metal’s structure, making negligible the risk of explosion. This fuel-cell performs the process of electrolysis in reverse: it generates electricity from hydrogen and oxygen. That electricity is used to operate an electric motor.
Hydrogen technology is well and truly coming of age. Since 1993, the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell bus, made by Ballard Power Systems, has been carrying passengers on the streets of Vancouver in Canada..
More promising still is the New Electric Car from Daimler-Benz, unveiled this year. It’s a modified Mercedes with a fuel-cell and hydrogen fuel tanks in an extended roof space. This car can go 70 miles per hour and has a range of 155 miles. It could be a commercial reality within ten years.
In California’s Palm Desert, meanwhile, solar power is being used to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen, then used in cars that do a petrol equivalent of 130 miles per gallon and require only two minutes to refuel.
Whether motor companies will be prepared to press ahead with mass production of ‘clean’ vehicles depends on political and consumer pressure. Change could happen very fast!
Of course we also need to break our dependency on individual cars. But even with the promotion of cycling and public transport, there will be some need for individually-owned vehicles.
‘Fine, if you are living in the North and can afford a Mercedes Benz,’ commented Gloria.
‘Ah... here’s one that might interest you then,’ said Claire pulling another paper out from the stack on Gloria’s knee.
Welcome, Solar Baby
‘Mmm. It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a few nice little inventions to get the world off fossil fuels. Especially petro-chemicals. They are mother’s milk to an industrial society,’ said Gloria, putting down the e-mail.
‘Mother’s ruin if you believe in global warming...’
‘A big ‘if’, if I may say so...’
‘There is a powerful lobby arguing that global warming isn’t happening, but most of the world’s scientists believe it is.
‘According to the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the slowdown in global warming observed from 1990 to 1993 has come to an end and concentrations of greenhouse gases are still rising and warming the surface of the earth. And anyway, even if there were no global warming we would still have to protect human health from the rise in emissions as the world’s population increases. Look at Mexico City – so polluted the World Health Organization smog limits are breached for 80 per cent of the year.’
‘Well, that is as it may be. But the economic reality for industrializing countries like Mexico or South Africa or China or India is that many of us are sitting on huge deposits of fossil fuels. We have another 200 years worth of coal in South Africa. Are you going to tell us we should not use it? Are you going to try and stop India using natural gas? Are you going to convince Mexico that it should leave its oil reserves in the ground? All that stored-up concentrated energy just lying there in the earth and a world economy geared up to use it.’
‘Oh there is no denying that fossil fuels are wonderfully convenient,’ conceded Claire. ‘And though oil reserves are getting low, coal and gas are going to be around for a long time yet... Perhaps we could use them in a limited, controlled way to plug the gaps in other energy systems. But not as the main system. For that we can use renewables which could also easily be produced in the South. Some people argue we don’t need fossil fuels at all and could phase them out completely by the end of the next century...’
She leaned back and foraged in another case, handing over yet another document: ‘The things you carry around with you!’ muttered Gloria. ‘I wonder how much energy is consumed and waste produced each year by environmental researchers churning out reports...’
Then she dipped into this report from Greenpeace:
Fossil-free energy future
In the analysis global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use fall by more than 50 per cent within 40 years and a 100 per cent by the year 2100. The bulk of the early carbon dioxide reductions are in industrialized countries which are the largest current emitters.
The phase-out of fossil fuels is made possible by the rapid implementation of energy efficiency, together with renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass, small-scale hydro and geothermal power. Renewable energy, currently delivering 14 per cent of global energy supply, would provide more than 60 per cent by 2030, and all the world’s energy needs by 2100. Nuclear power would be phased out by 2010. The study proves that to phase out fossil fuels and nuclear power is both technically and economically possible. All it needs is political will.’
‘Pie in the sky,’ said Gloria. ‘All this talk about renewables. I’d like to see it in practice.’
Claire pondered. ‘Let me take you to the Centre of Alternative Technology in Wales.’
‘Why not? It will be nice to get out into the country – if we ever get off this road that is...’
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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