In A Decarbonized World, Will Freedom Of Mobility Be Affordable To A Happy Few Only?

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The question “In a Decarbonized World, Will Freedom of Mobility Be Affordable to a Happy Few Only?” was the topic of the first Freedom of Mobility Forum debate. This was a debate between intelligent, well informed, very opinionated people who regretfully used the debate to talk about their mobility-related hobby-horses and mostly ignored the question*.

That is a pity, because it is an important question that many people are asking. The new fully electric vehicles the people see are either way too expensive or too short ranged, not really capable enough. For some comparison, there is talk about new taxes on flying or suggestions of less flying, but the fact of the matter is: taking the train is typically more expensive.

Again, the debate question was about the affordability and availability of mobility. The short answer is that mobility will become more affordable and more available. That is, unless politicians decide otherwise.

But first, let’s make clear what a decarbonized world is. It is not a “net zero” world where the greenwashing polluters plant a new Sahara forest every few years to see it burn down in an ever heating world. In a decarbonized world, there is no addition of greenhouse gasses to the greenhouse layer caused by human activity. That includes greenhouse gases from the use of synfuels or biofuels. That also includes the water exhaust from high-flying planes using hydrogen and some forms of intensified agriculture. What happens in the biosphere stays in the biosphere.

The Paris agreement has a “net zero” goal of 2050, China is aiming for 2060, and after that date, there are likely still a hundred nations that need help to achieve complete decarbonization. In short, the current state of decarbonizing the world is not something to be happy about. But for this article’s, question we do not have to wait that long before we can know the answer. It is all about technology and costs.

Available and affordable have two aspects. They apply to the vehicles and the energy to move them. Electrified vehicles are easier to make than vehicles using other energy sources (except your own muscles). Renewable electric energy is the cheapest energy we know, even cheaper than the energy delivered by our own muscles, especially if we are not vegetarian. The possibility of the local generation of electricity from solar and wind make the availability of electricity in all inhabited parts of the world a non-issue.

We can look at the different modes of mobility and how decarbonization will affect them. Historically, the main source of energy for transport was delivered by our own human muscles. Nowadays it is used in walking and bicycling.

Walking without being poisoned by the exhaust of ICE-powered vehicles is making even walking more available and affordable. The replacement of internal combustion engines as auxiliary power for bicycles by small electric motors and batteries made electric bicycles common. Their use often replaces the use of a car, improving the health of their users and saving money.

We can skip a discussion about local public transport, because the influence of decarbonization is marginal. The big changes in local public transport are caused by automation and policies to make cities more livable.

Longer-range public transport is provided by trains and planes. Trains are mostly electric and the electrification of all railways is an ongoing development. Planes are in a different chapter. It will be very hard and take likely over half a century to completely decarbonize long-distance flying.

Short-distance flying will see a big change. Flying minibuses and MPVs will become much cheaper, and flying them will cost next to nothing. Regions that use those types of planes a lot, like Alaska and Northern Scandinavia, will be the first to experience this. Next are all the sparsely populated parts of the world and regions without good roads.

A new category of mid-distance flying public transport will emerge. Electric planes with 30–100 seats will enable routes of up to 300 miles. Places that are never going to be connected to high-speed rail (HSR) will be offered connection with the same speed and comfort. Expect this to take off in 10 to 20 years (pun intended).

High-speed rail will replace most flying between larger destinations up to 500 miles, with some preferring it for travels over a thousand miles. In 10 years, there will be a lot of talk about the electrification of airlines. In 20 years, the first electrified smaller airline planes will likely enter service on the shorter routes. Bigger planes flying longer routes will happen, but when is a different question.

And now the elephant in the room. Or better, the holy cow in the room. The automobile, your car.

The biggest changes in personal mobility using cars will have nothing to do with decarbonization. They are autonomous driving, shared mobility, mobility as a service, and removal of cars out of cities to make them more livable. These changes will likely have a bigger influence on the design and use of cars than the switch from fossil fuels to electricity. But only the last change is the topic of this article.

First the vehicle: an electric vehicle has fewer moving parts and those parts are simpler. It will cost less to make the car, unless some parts are extremely expensive. Currently, the battery is extremely expensive. This is the reason that most fully electric cars are currently either way too expensive or short ranged and not really capable enough.

For affordability, we only have to look at the battery. In this decade, battery energy density will at least double — looking at what is being expected to go into production the next few years. Tripling energy density is even likely for some battery types. The price per kWh will halve every 5 years. Price erosion is helped by the use of LFP and sodium-ion batteries.

Taking this together, we can see the possibility for the same mass and volume battery pack with double the capacity for half the price in 2030. This moves the battery from extremely expensive to just expensive, and it solves the capability problem.

The current problems with the raw materials for batteries will be solved when entering the next decade. The market does not need any longer to balance supply and demand by raising prices. New technological developments will keep making battery production cheaper, making fully electric vehicles more affordable than fossil fuel burning vehicles.

Availability will be a product of socioeconomic developments and political decisions, not a direct result of decarbonization.

Electricity will be widely available for stable prices. No longer will faraway wars disrupt our energy prices.

Back to the original question. Mobility has always been an expensive luxury, becoming more widely available and more affordable as we got richer. Decarbonization will continue helping mobility and travel become more available and affordable for more people all over the world.

* P.S. I did not have the patience to listen to more than half an hour of the forum’s talks. Perhaps later on someone did discuss the main topic.

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Maarten Vinkhuyzen

Grumpy old man. The best thing I did with my life was raising two kids. Only finished primary education, but when you don’t go to school, you have lots of time to read. I switched from accounting to software development and ended my career as system integrator and architect. My 2007 boss got two electric Lotus Elise cars to show policymakers the future direction of energy and transportation. And I have been looking to replace my diesel cars with electric vehicles ever since. At the end of 2019 I succeeded, I replaced my Twingo diesel for a Zoe fully electric.

Maarten Vinkhuyzen has 280 posts and counting. See all posts by Maarten Vinkhuyzen