Diesel has swept Europe as the fuel of choice. This is not a result of consumer demand but of deliberate government incentives. In the 1990s it became clear that diesel cars emitted 20 percent less carbon dioxide while delivering 30 percent more fuel economy than their quieter gasoline counterparts. Governments jumped on this with all manner of subsidies and tax incentives to make diesel more economical than the alternative, resulting in the share of diesel-engined automobiles on the road climbing from 10 percent to 50 percent between 1980 and 2005, reaching as high as 75 percent in France and Belgium.
While this has helped to reduce CO2 emissions, a side-effect has been an increase in other types of pollution. Diesel engines emit more particulates (soot) and Nitrogen Oxides, both of which are harmful to human health. Diesel is good for the planet but bad for people. One study at the University of Chicago found 94 percent of European cities to have more than 10 micrograms of particulates per cubic meter in the air, compared to 35 percent of cities in the United States where adoption of diesel cars has been next to zero and was effectively killed by the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015.
Policy makers in America have made different choices from Europe, pushing for the development of electric cars rather than wholesale switching to diesel. An example of this is California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate that requires automakers to ensure that a certain percentage of their sales are accounted for by cars that do not have tail pipes. The percentage increases every year rising to 22 percent in 2025. Regulations like this were inspired by the viability of the GM Impact, a ground-breaking battery-powered prototype vehicle that could reach speeds of up to 80 MPH and accelerate from 0 to 60 in 8 seconds, sporty performance that was previously unheard of in electric cars.
California has continued to incentivize the adoption of electric vehicles. Also in favor are hybrid cars that combine electric motors and a part-time gasoline engine. Adoption rates skyrocketed and the development of electric cars became a lucrative part of the auto industry.
Meanwhile in Ireland, diesel remains king and electric cars are still rare. In 2008 the government pledged to reduce carbon emissions in 2020 by 20 percent from 2005 levels, and as part of that set an ambitious target of having 10 percent of cars on the road being electric, a total of a quarter of a million vehicles. Sales have not matched expectations, so in 2014 this target was cut to 50,000, and this year it has been cut again to 20,000. 3,000 electric vehicles are on the republic’s roads today, and even the modest target will not be met at this rate.
Contrast this with California where electric cars are commonplace.
This is frustrating given that there are considerable incentives in place to adopt electric vehicles. €5,000 grants are available to help purchases and the ESB offers free charging points, potentially offering €3,000 in savings per car per year.
So why has California been so successful at encouraging electric vehicle adoption while Ireland is falling so far behind? For one thing Ireland’s network of charging stations is relatively sparse compared to other countries that have been more aggressive about incentivizing adoption. Charging an electric car is a longer process than the five-minute job of filling a tank. Electric vehicles have to remain plugged in while the owner sleeps, works, or shops. “Range anxiety,” the fear that you will not be able to reach your destination or get home, is a major barrier to more people making the switch to electric.
California also has an advantage in disguise; its terrible traffic. Diamond lanes on the freeway, initially provided to encourage people to carpool, have been repurposed to allow hybrid and electric vehicles use them. This allows solo drivers in electric cars to zip past stationary traffic in the other lanes. The program has become the victim of its own success with some diamond lanes now attracting so many electric vehicles that they are beginning to lose their speed advantage. Nonetheless, it shows the power of providing an incentive for drivers who want to shave time off their commutes. Time is precious and irreplaceable, and if a shorter commute can be bought for the price of an electric vehicle then many people will make that choice.
The Irish government could follow some of California’s lead. Diamond lanes may not be feasible on Ireland’s narrower roads where motorways typically have two lanes in each direction, and the Green Party has refused to advocate allowing electric cars into bus lanes since that would interfere with the push to get more people using public transport. However adoption rates would increase if charging stations were a common sight at more workplaces, parking lots, and businesses. Retailers and local councils could get rebates for installing such stations in their parking lots, particularly the prized locations closer to the entrance. It could be made easier for householders to install charging equipment at home. Companies that provide employee parking could get tax breaks for installing chargers.
It is not too late for Ireland to meet its greenhouse gas obligations, but if that is not enough to persuade anyone to act then there is a more powerful argument. Several expert agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control have identified diesel exhaust fumes as being at least likely to cause cancer in humans. Regardless of one’s feelings about the planet, cutting this poison out of the air we breathe is reason enough to switch to a cleaner and quieter means of transport now that it is becoming more viable.