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The World Bank’s impractical electric car clap-trap

Connor Tomlinson

At a World Bank event in April, former chief economist Lord Nicholas Stern called for a global ban on the manufacture and sale of combustion engine vehicles. At COP26, a coalition of multilateral development banks signed a joint statement announcing their intentions to ‘increase the level of private capital mobilised’ to fight climate change. Activists were infuriated that it omitted divestments from funding fossil fuels. Both the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have faced industry pressure to stop investing in internal combustion engine vehicles by 2025. Sixty-eight percent of transport investment by the World Bank involves combustion engines. But perhaps the World Bank has not floored the accelerator on EVs yet because they recognise roadblocks keep the wheel out of reach for working families.

The UK Government insists that combustion engine vehicles will be banned from production, importing, and sale by 2030. But a global semiconductor shortage has produced a projected nine percent slump in electric vehicle sales in the UK. Motorists are modelled to save £700 on fuel for making the switch to EVs. However, road pricing and tolls have been proposed to replace Treasury revenue once fuel duty becomes obsolete. Therefore, the gap between petrol and electric car running costs may close. Electricity costs could even eclipse fuel prices, should the renewables generating electricity fail.

There are also infrastructure impediments to overcome. The ban would require 400,000 charging points to be installed across the UK by 2030, up from the only 35,000 that were in place as of last year. Many rural areas remain ‘charging blackspots’, inaccessible for EVs on long journeys. Annual installation must increase ten-fold to meet the Department for Transport’s promise that ‘drivers will never be further than thirty miles from a rapid charging station’.

Even if charger targets are met, streets could be lined with cars charging for up to twelve hours at a time. This issue will be exacerbated in cities. ‘Generation Rent’ faces housing price rises of 14.3 percent; the fastest for seventeen years. Their reliance on being packed and stacked into high-rise apartments means a third and rising of the population have no access to private off-street parking. 24.6 percent of vehicles are parked on streets overnight. A report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) modelled electric car ownership will increase traffic congestion eleven percent by 2050.  Combined with charging station scarcity, congestion could become chronic — with motorists jousting for parking and charging spaces, and charging stoppages slowing delivery times for various courier services. This constitutes quite the regression from the convenient five-minute-stop at your local petrol garage.

All of this is presuming that the cars themselves can be manufactured to meet demand. Making electric cars requires six times the minerals as combustion engine vehicles: needing thirty times as the lithium, nickel, and other metals currently in circulation. The UK must expand battery production capacity by ninety times the present amount to keep pace. But absent abundant domestic resources, Britain remains heavily dependent on our geostrategic rivals for the raw materials used in EV and battery manufacture. 

Britain imports over 2200 tonnes of lithium every year. Recent sanctions on Russia affected Britain’s top import: $12 billion of annual metal imports. Nickel prices saw a short-squeeze, with prices increasing 250 percent to over $100,000 a tonne. Both metals are instrumental in EV battery manufacturing.

Meanwhile, China controls eighty percent of global annual battery production capacity, sixty percent of global graphite production, sixty five percent of nickel refining, and eighty percent of cobalt refining. This is because China’s Belt & Road Initiative has annexed more than a third of global precious metals deposits: including forty rare ore deposits in Zimbabwe, the ‘white goldrush’ of lithium under Argentinian salt-flats, and $1 trillion in lithium reserves in Afghanistan.

There is mounting evidence that the only way out of our rare metals shortage is to mine asteroids in outer space. Elon Musk’s rocket-measuring contest against Jeff Bezos and Richard Branston may be an interstellar gold rush to become Earth’s first trillionaire. But until these mad scientists invent safe passage to the stars, the rest of us will keep driving petrol cars.

But instead of abandoning infeasible commitments to the abolition of transport emissions within the next eight years eco-authoritarians use these shortages as an excuse to restrict energy consumption and abolish car ownership.

In addition to the usual anti-motorist platitudes by the cycling lobby, some have taken to advocating ride-share apps as a reason to ‘give up owning a vehicle’. These rent-only alternatives have the downside of making your means of mobility contingent on the kindness of strangers. Ride-sharing is a convenient addition to the transport economy. However, if car ownership were displaced wholesale by public transport and hire-cars, there are dire concerns for civil liberties. Say the wrong thing about the environment, and governments, or the increasing number of companies adopting environmental credit scores, can deplatform from anything except walking. Consumer choice must be a core principle of free societies — and that includes your right to buy and drive a petrol car.

EVs also render homeowners vulnerable to arbitrary power outages. Green Party Baroness Natalie Bennett has suggested that electric cars can be used a driveway backup generators, should renewables fail to meet consumer demand. The National Grid and Octopus Energy are piloting a policy which drains EV batteries of energy during generation droughts. Even if all of Britain’s cars became electric overnight, and full storage capacity could be returned to the grid without losses, it would still fall short of the deepest energy deficit by eighty-seven percent. This precedent is not only impractical: it means that the state can drain your EV’s battery flat, and enforce a travel lockdown anytime it pleases. If they can’t confiscate your car, the government can remotely deactivate your home charging point anytime they like.

Electric cars are, incontrovertibly, a great idea in theory. But those wanting everyone to drive electric won’t get anywhere fast by banning the combustion engine — all they will achieve is pricing all but a privileged few out of car ownership entirely. That would be politically suicidal; my apolitical plumber recently told me, ‘I’ve never been to a protest, but if they try to take my car, you’ll see me in the streets.’ If the World Bank and British government follow through on their plan to ban the combustion engine, they may well have riots on their hands. They must abandon the planned petrol car ban, or risk terrible consequences.