The few neoliberals who can bring themselves to acknowledge that peak oil is inevitable and upon us argue it’s not really a problem: ‘when prices rise, people will buy alternatives instead, like electric cars’. But peak oil causes recessions and, as new data show, recessions kill car sales. Even if enough electric cars could be made, could we afford to buy them?
This article appeared in the Sunday Star-Times:
The recession has fuelled a sharp rise in the age of the country’s car fleet as Kiwis hold off spending and make their wheels last longer.
Since the end of 2007, when the world economic crisis kicked in, the average age of the cars and vans on the nation’s roads jumped by a year to break the 13-year mark.
It had been creeping up even before the crisis and is now at 13.25 years and rising.
The rapid ageing is a result of the sharp fall in the number of new and used cars imported as drivers chose to eke out the miles in their old cars.
In 2007, a total of 197,836 new and 120,382 used cars were imported and registered, according to New Zealand Transport Authority data. In 2009, that fell to 123,161 and 68,757 respectively…
This makes sense. When a family’s income is cut, the typical response is to cut luxury and capital spending, not every day costs. It’s usually going to be cheaper, in the short-term at least, to keep an older car running and pay its rising fuel bill than fork out for a new, more fuel-efficient car (not that older cars are necessarily less efficient than new ones). Used small cars have actually became more expensive during the recession while the price of new cars has plummeted because those buying cars have been looking to minimise their capital outlay and running costs.
In a cycle of oil price spikes and recessions, when are we going to be able to afford to replace all the gas guzzlers with electric, even if they were available in sufficient numbers? We’re not. We’re going into the peak oil age with the transport infrastructure we have, not the one would ideally want.
… the average age of cars will blow out to 14.5 years because New Zealand cannot import cars fast enough to replace the ageing cars on the road.
“The ageing is just going to keep going,” Kerr says. “There’s a huge hump of 1995, 1996, and 1997 vehicles on the road. They represent about 23% of the whole fleet.”
The government is aware of the issue, Kerr says, and there are big questions to answer about the cost, both in monetary and environmental terms, of keeping more older vehicles on the road.
Competition among buyers seeking to trade up from older to newer used cars will increase as demand outstrips supply.
“The inevitable thing is that the consumer is going to have to pay more,” said Graham Roberts, chief executive of Turners Auctions.
That will hit middle New Zealand in the pocket. Many who trade up relatively frequently will be forced to keep their old cars for longer, reminiscent of the days before the 1990s and early 2000s boom in Japanese imports.
Roberts said a second group would find it increasingly hard to stay on the road – those on lower incomes.
[The Motor Trade Association] planned to talk to the government about whether New Zealand should introduce a “scrappage” scheme, subsidising trade-ups to get environmentally damaging, and increasingly unsafe, older cars off the road.
The MTA, of course, wants more sales and what beter way than by subsidising them? But I’m not sure the government spending millions trying to encourage people to dump old cars and buy new ones is the best idea. A new car is not necessarily more efficient than an older one – paying someone to dump their old Mini and buy a new SUV isn’t a good thing. Nor is generating extra demand for car manufacture the best use of the world’s limited natural resources.
Certainly, when buying a car people should look at the fuel efficiency and heavy users – Police, taxis, and government agencies should have policies of buying hybrid or electric. But the ordinary family can best reduce dramatically their fuel bill by simple life-style changes – commuting by public transport rather than car, for instance – instead of expensive, government-subsidised, purchases of new cars. That taxpayer money would be better spent on buses and trains.
Electric cars aren’t going to come to our rescue – we won’t be able to afford them. To put that another way, peak oil will leave us too energy-poor to devote all the required resources to scrapping our current car fleet and replacing it with electrics. To deal with peak oil, we’re going to have to use the cars we have less and focus on public transport to move beyond the car culture, not attempt to further embed it with subsidies the government can’t afford.