At the COP26 summit in Glasgow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for nothing less than a “comprehensive transformation of the economy.”
But at home business as usual. At the federal level, the new “traffic light” coalition of SPD, Greens, and FDP has rejected demands to introduce a speed limit on the Autobahn. This would not only save numerous lives, but reduce CO2 emissions by 1,9 million tons per year at the stroke of a pen.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the “red-red-green” coalition plans to keep building the A100 motorway through Neukölln and Treptow. Last Saturday, several hundred people occupied the construction site. The city is spending €700 million for 3.2 kilometers of road — each meter costs over €200,000. Numerous homes were expropriated to make way for it, while the same coalition argues that there is no money to make public transport free.
The German government, however, claims to have a magic bullet to solve the climate crisis: E-Autos or electric cars. There are currently 48.25 million vehicles in Germany and in the coming years and decades they are all supposed to be replaced with electric models. The government is paying billions of euros in subsidies both to manufacturers and consumers — a wealthy person can get up to €9,000 to purchase a new car. We are supposed to believe that so long as these cars run on renewable energy, everyone can keep driving and emissions will sink to zero.
However, building these cars require an enormous amount of resources. The production of each E-Auto releases 10-12 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — about twice as much as a traditional car. This is mostly to make the batteries, which require lithium and other minerals which are mined and then transported around the world. Elon Musk is building his so-called Gigafactory near Berlin, which will churn out 500,000 electric cars per year. Its plans include a gas-fired power plant.
Depending on which study you consult, an electric car needs to drive more than 60,000 kilometres before its lifetime emissions make it cleaner than a car that runs on fossil fuels. And – as we know from our phones – batteries decline over time.
There is an incredibly easy way to reduce carbon emissions — even though not a single politician at COP26 would dare to mention it. Are you ready? We could produce fewer cars.
E-Autos are never going to be efficient. When you think about it, it is not very sensible to move 2,000 kilograms of metal to transport a single person weighing 75 kilograms. These cars are then left standing around about 98% of the time, and are replaced fairly quickly.
Despite appearances, a smoky coal-burning train from the 19th century has a much smaller CO2 footprint than an electric vehicle per person and kilometre traveled. It isn’t complicated: the solution is mass transit. But can we afford to invest in busses, trams, and trains?
The German state subsidises the automobile industry to a staggering degree. The deduction for commuters costs over €5 billion per year. Subsidies for company cars are over €3 billion. Private companies like Tesla are getting €10 billion. That doesn’t even include the money to maintain roads and Autobahns.
In contrast, the Berlin public transport company BVG only got €765 million in the year before the pandemic from selling tickets. So making public transport completely free would cost essentially nothing. It could be completely financed by getting Elon Musk to pay his taxes.
This measure would require nothing more than moving around a few numbers in a spreadsheet — and it would reduce emissions drastically from Day 1. The problem is that a program like this would not generate much in terms of profits for billionaires. E-Autos are not being pushed because they will help the environment — they are designed to generate profits as the planet burns.
I always hear that people love their cars. But when I interact with drivers as a pedestrian or a cyclist, I must say they never seem particularly happy. The average Berliner spends at least 105 hours a year in traffic jams, and even more looking for parking. New freeways are supposed to bring relief — but they just lead to more cars, and thus more traffic.
Billionaires promise that some day, self-driving will reduce the stress of individual transportation. Then you will be able to simply lie back and read the newspaper while an on-board computer drives. But I already read the newspaper when I am traveling through Berlin! “Self-driving” vehicles have existed for over a century, and they’re called subways.
Making public transport free would only be the beginning. We could invest in new buses, trains, and trams. No one in Berlin would ever dream of wanting to take a car. We would stop producing cars entirely, and then begin culling out the least efficient models bit by bit. What about the millions of jobs in the German car industry? To start, we could cut working hours in half, with no loss of pay. And then we could use all those resources to start work on a network of high-speed trains spanning the world. It’s not as if the car manufacturers lack money.
It’s somewhat amazing that no one at COP26 thought of such a simple solution, right? But as the West German singer-songwriter Franz-Josef Degenhardt put it: “We are supposed to forget about the real solution for this problem. Because the real solution for this problem would make some, but really only a very few, uncomfortable.”
Yes, giving up on cars might be unpleasant for Elon Musk and a handful of car oligarchs. They might lose a fraction of their wealth. But are they making good use of it anyway? Instead of saving the planet, they’re leaving it. Musk has famously set his sights on Mars.
Imagine you are on a ship, and the captain is steering it right towards an iceberg. He keeps saying everything will be fine — but you notice he is spending all his time working on a luxury lifeboat with capacity for one. E-Autos are nothing more than a scam. The people who set our planet on fire want to make a few more bucks before they escape.
What we need is a “comprehensive transformation of the economy” — and that means expropriating the automobile industry and putting it under democratic control.
Red Flag is a weekly political column by Nathaniel Flakin.