“Use more gasoline”: The unlikely ambition that could help save the planet from climate change

Petrol pump

The internal combustion engine has an important role in transporting people, goods and services, but is it one that can be squared with goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Grantham Institute Head of Policy and Translation Alyssa Gilbert discusses some of the issues at stake.

I was recently moved to support a new cause. For the first time, I heard about the worrying plight of homeless hydrocarbons.

What – you might ask – are homeless hydrocarbons? Well, these poor dears could result from a growth in the market for electric passenger vehicles. The hydrocarbons in question are the energy-rich molecules (chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms) that make up billions of barrels of gasoline (petrol) and that may get left behind when we turn our backs on the traditional combustion engine.

Greening transport with gasoline

This rise in electric passenger- and light-vehicles is both worthwhile and inevitable, according to the speakers at a recent Grantham Institute event about what transport will look like in a low-carbon world. However, they also agreed that the future will see an increase in demand for transport from commercial users, which – at least in the short term – will largely have to be met by heavy goods vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.

While more powerful vehicles currently consume highly processed derivatives of crude oil – medium distillates such as diesel or kerosene (for planes), light vehicles require light distillate fuels such as gasoline or liquid petroleum gas (LPG). This is an important distinction because light distillates generate less greenhouse gas emissions during their production, and if we are going to use continue using petroleum in transport in the years ahead, the less impact it has, the better.

Speaking at the event, Professor Gautam Kalghati of Saudi Aramco called upon fuel and engine manufacturers to come together to develop a new kind of engine, capable of carrying heavy loads but using lighter, gasoline-based fuels. Such a collaboration, he said, would help facilitate the remarkable shift required for the transport sector to adopt to a lower-carbon mode of operation. And give a home to the dispossessed hydrocarbons.

The end of the road for hydrocarbons

Electric car
Could electric vehicles replace all petrol-fuelled transport?

But is this type of new petroleum-based engine really required? This is where the speakers at our event diverged. Bob Moran, Deputy Head of the UK’s Office for Low Emissions Vehicles, is certain that the internal combustion engine’s days are numbered. Zero-carbon transport is fast taking off with new affordable and desirable designs for electric or hydrogen fuel- powered vehicles, and innovation and research and development should gradually produce similar products in the heavy goods vehicle space. Over time, he says, the internal combustion engine will simply be edged out of the market.

Professor Kalghati is more dubious, and he’s not alone. Many players recognise the huge rate of development required before these innovations deliver serviceable products for the commercial goods sector, aviation and shipping.  Some observers, noting the predictions about the rapid growth of hydrogen vehicles in the past – expressed concern that the electric vehicle will go the way of other fads. But the momentum behind electric vehicles – including the number available in the marketplace – suggest otherwise.

Driving global change

The debate also highlighted the stark difference between the developed and developing world in terms of future transport needs. Soon, the bulk of the mobile population of the world will sit outside the traditional West, where the nature and makeup of the growing demand for transport is largely understood. Developing economies might well be very dependent on the traditional internal combustion engine. After all, petroleum can be transported like no other energy source available.

On the other hand, Professor John Polak of Imperial’s Centre for Transport Studies explained how inexplicable new patterns are appearing in the demand for transport across the developed world’s urban centres. Younger men, traditionally heavy users, are abandoning their cars in droves, whilst there is an increase in the use of cars by women. The explosion of new technology – both in vehicle automation and in business models related to transport such as Uber and Didi – are changing the landscape significantly. As we increasingly shop online with door-to-door delivery, goods start to move in different ways. All of these changes put pressure on our transport infrastructure to change. For Professor Polak, the essential question is whether or not the developing world will eventually see this same transformation, or whether these patterns are unique to developed countries, and others will follow a different trajectory.

The power of collaboration

In all parts of the globe, technological developments are paralleling those in the transport sector. Professor Shinichi Inage, speaking on behalf of multinational conglomerate Hitachi, explained how hooking up the batteries in electric vehicles could potentially store excess energy generated by intermittent sources like solar power. This example shows what immense potential there is for a system linking lower-carbon energy and transport, but also the power of coordination.

It is clear that for all solutions – the roll out of low-carbon vehicles, the development of new lower-carbon petroleum based fuels and engines, and the transformation of infrastructure – cooperation is essential. Unfortunately, according to Professor Polak, the transport sector has been seriously fragmented thus far, with the multitude of parties operating until now in isolation. It is clearly time to start talking, working and innovating together.

This debate is important. The transport sector generates roughly 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions (pdf), and these must be reduced if we are going to meet our targets to keep global warming well below 2°C as agreed internationally by governments in Paris. Policymakers need to acknowledge where the sticking points might be and decide how to approach them and who will take leadership.

I have a feeling there will be a demand for fossil fuels for vehicles for some time yet, from the commercial sectors and from rural and less developed parts of the world. So, I am not shedding a tear for the hydrocarbons yet. However, I do hope that with innovation and research, we can soon see the type of vehicles, engines and infrastructures that will start to make some hydrocarbons homeless.

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