At the international climate change conference, COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, the British organisers pushed for greater recognition of the impact of road transport on greenhouse gas emissions – and to present the electrification of the automotive market as the solution. Over 100 governments, businesses, investors, and civic organisations signed a declaration committing to accelerating the transition to zero-emissions vehicles. More recently, the World Bank publicised that it is also promoting vehicle electrification as the strategic policy that will drive transport decarbonisation.
Nonetheless, in transport research, there is abundant evidence that automotive electrification will not be enough to decarbonise how we travel. Reductions in travel and mode shift are also essential. Electrification is only part of the solution, but it is an important part, particularly in many high-income counties where the built environment has been shaped by automobility for at least half a century.
So we accept automotive electrification as good environmental policy, even if not exclusively. Yet whether it is also good social policy is rarely considered, never mind questioned.
From incentives to purchase electric cars to the placement of public charging stations, and from bans on the sale of new fossil-fuel powered vehicles to clean air zones which regulate which vehicles can access urban centres, policies supporting automotive electrification have implications for people and communities.
The impacts and benefits of regulations, bans, infrastructure and incentives will not be distributed evenly. They will not recognise every user’s needs equitably. Not everyone will be able to participate in making decisions about automotive electrification and how to accelerate the transition to electric-powered vehicles. Nor will those decisions reflect everyone’s understanding of the transport problems that need solving or the opportunities that need creating.
In other words, policies supporting automotive electrification will have implications for all aspects of social justice: distributional, recognition, procedural, and knowledge creation. These social justice implications are poorly understood. Our research aims to fill some of the gaps.
For example, previous research has often focused on early adopters to identify trends that might help accelerate adoption, and yet early adopters have a relatively narrow socio-demographic profile – they tend to be wealthier, better-educated men. They also tend to be able to charge at home, overnight, on favourable electricity tariffs, perhaps even have solar PV panels on their roofs and can charge for free. Thus, the distribution of chargers that would best recognise their needs are ones they would use occasionally, when travelling further, such as rapid charging at motorway service stations or charge points at destinations and hotels.
Our research targeting people who are unlikely to be able to charge at home found that they have very different needs and preferences. For them, a lack of affordable, convenient, and reliable charging near their homes is a major barrier to switching from fossil-fuel powered cars to electric. For women, a safe and pleasant environment at and around the charging location is also key.
Our research has also begun looking in more detail at the social justice implications of transport electrification in four case study cities across Europe: Bristol, UK; Oslo, Norway; Poznan, Poland; and Utrecht, The Netherlands. We use a mixed methods approach to analyse both policy and personal perspectives in our research into an Inclusive Transition to Electric Mobility (ITEM).
The cities are at different stages of electrification of transport, and their concerns reflect this, yet in all four cases, accepted environmental policies supporting automotive electrification are raising questions about social justice.
For those on lower incomes or disabled, for taxi and delivery drivers, regulatory and legislative policies like bans and clean air zones cause a lot of concern. Will the price of electric cars come down fast enough for them to afford to switch? Are the incentives and grants offered progressive enough? Who is meaningfully involved in where zone boundaries or charging infrastructure is located? Are automotive workers being re-trained? Do local city dwellers even see electric cars as the solution to decarbonising transport, never mind making transport more inclusive and equitable?
Part of the problem is that in current national and urban policy, the link between electrification and social justice is weak. Although consultation is common and there is consideration of the distributional impacts of policies, the value of mobility is assumed and how electrification affects accessibility ignored. Complaints about congestion and air quality are often interchangeable, yet automotive electrification may worsen the former even if it improves the latter.
In the rush to decarbonise transport and secure funding, technocratic approaches dominate and collaborations rarely extend beyond the usual stakeholders. Whilst this may be driven by practicality, it leaves little room for the creation of new, transformative knowledge and action. Whilst the aim of our research is to accelerate the transition to electric mobility and automotive electrification, we also aim to create knowledge that can make this transition more inclusive. As we have said, automotive electrification is not the exclusive solution to decarbonise transport, but if it is to be one of the more effective solutions, it is important that is also socially just.