The green car is more than a white lie, says Roger Ratcliffe

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It is World Car Free Day this Sunday, when motorists are encouraged to find other ways of getting from A to B. For me that might mean hopping on a bus to a friend’s house on the outskirts of Leeds then hoofing it to the supermarket. None of which is a problem – I’m already trying to cut my car usage.

But the time when we had a choice between climbing behind the driving wheel or using our feet, bikes or public transport could become just a memory. In the long-term, I think governments may have to consider compulsory bans on car travel.

If the environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion is successful in its aim of forcing the UK to become a net zero carbon nation by 2025 then our years of car ownership will end sooner rather than later. Currently, though, the UK’s carbon zero target is 2050. It seems aeons away, but if you’re old enough to remember the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that’s the rough timespan we’re talking about for the end of petrol and diesel engines.

Carbon emissions are just part of the problem, of course. There’s also the cocktail of toxic pollutants being inhaled in ever-higher concentrations – things like microscopic particulates and nitrogen dioxide linked to cancers, heart disease, strokes and asthma.

Then there’s the issue of accommodating rising vehicle numbers on already congested roads and streets. Vehicle ownership in the UK has accelerated every year since the end of World War II. We now have more than 38.4 million, a figure that’s expected to rise by 600,000 in the next 12 months. The vast majority are private cars, and a study this summer by the RAC found that 8 per cent of journeys are under half a mile while 76 per cent are within two or three miles. I don’t know about you but I’m dismayed to find that a significant factor in the deteriorating quality of life in towns and cities is people being too lazy to walk relatively short distances.

Great hopes are pinned on electric vehicles. Recently a friend announced on Facebook that she’d ordered one, adding “now I can really feel smug.” But anyone who thinks there’s such a thing as an environmentally friendly car is wrong, just as a decade ago I swallowed the lie that diesel was “greener” than petrol. Diesel engines are worse polluters.

Now it is emerging that electric vehicles pose another serious problem for the world. Their batteries rely on a reactive alkali metal called lithium –
the average electric car contains up to 10 kilos of the stuff. Yet lithium mining is one of the most destructive activities on the planet, making fracking look positively clean.

In South America’s so-called Lithium Triangle covering parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, more than half the world’s lithium deposits are being extracted in a region where drinking water is in desperately short supply. Yet around half a million gallons of water are required to flush out one tonne of lithium. And in China a huge mine run by the world’s biggest supplier of lithium-ion batteries has not only poisoned drinking water but killed masses of farm animals and fish.No wonder environmentally conscious individuals and governments are reaching the conclusion there is no such thing as a green car.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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