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Friday, July 30, 2021

The era of the Internal Combustion Engine draws to a close

The internal combustion engine, in all its various incarnations, has enabled huge societal change. But its environmental footprint is leading to its demise. (It should be pointed out that the mode of transportation it replaced, namely the horse, also had a significant environmental impact, in the shape of huge amounts of farmland devoted to "biofuels" in the form of oats, which inevitably led to huge amounts of pollution in the form of manure that had to be cleared from city streets.)

Having spent my teenage years reading voraciously about cars, and my twenties employed in repairing them, I have watched this technology grow from a 1950's suburban utopia to today's choked, grid-locked and smog-filled cities.

The convenience of a liquid fuel should not to be underestimated: it takes 5 minutes to fill an onboard energy storage system with a volume of 50 litres and a weight, when full, of 50 kg, containing enough energy to cover 500 km. Electric batteries and other alternatives, such as LNG or hydrogen, have major challenges meeting this 5-50-50-500 benchmark.

From the first crude devices leaving the workshops of Henry Ford or Carl Benz, to today's computer-controlled, turbocharged corporate platforms, there has been a steady improvement in ICE efficiency. Overall more power from a smaller, more compact engine has led to reduced fuel consumption and more flexible performance.

This is still not enough, though, if we are to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently for a Net Zero by 2050 scenario. Better efficiency has always led to people driving more, rather than pocketing the reduced cost per mile, whether due to opportunity or urban sprawl. And even if it were, the electric car merely shifts the combustion elsewhere, unless the power source is non-carbon (hydro, wind, solar, nuclear). Plus the issues around congestion and livability of cities where we need to allocate huge amounts of space to driving and parking cars point to a need for massively reduced private car ownership and similarly increased public transit. But that is not a technology shift, but a societal one; it is a problem with which automotive engineers are not well equipped to deal. 

Fond as I am of the automobile era, its time has come. We may need lots of electric cars to fight climate change; but we will need a lot fewer cars, regardless of energy type, to make our cities livable. This is not yet obvious on the ground in Canada where I live, except maybe in the Greater Toronto Area; but the great cities of the world, those with populations over 10 million, are all dealing with this issue daily.

Following on the IEA report on Net Zero by 2050, The IEA has released a new report discusses making cities livable (click here) in a Net Zero context. I have mentioned before that the IEA, as a subsidiary of the OECD, is inevitably going to provide business-as-usual solutions to politicians that worry about getting re-elected; but as Mark Jaccard has pointed out, the best climate policy is the one that gets implemented, and providing politicians with pathways they can sell to voters is one way forward. Otherwise the small-government, tax-cutting, neo-liberal free-marketeers will get elected and no progress will be made on the existential threat that is climate change. And the IEA has the added strength of not leaning on radical new pie-in-the-sky technologies that may or may not work; the tools are all available, at a cost which, while high, must be compared to the cost of doing nothing.

 I will leave you with a paragraph from the IEA report on cities:

"Cities account for more than 50% of the global population, 80% of global GDP, two-thirds of global energy consumption and more than 70% of annual global carbon emissions. These factors are expected to grow significantly in the coming decades: it is anticipated that by 2050 more than 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, resulting in massive growth in demand for urban energy infrastructure."

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