December 1, 2023

The crisis in the climate has brought about an awareness that is acute of historical events. The human choices that were made earlier are making a huge and significant impact on our present, and what happens in the present could be a substantial and crucial impact on the future of our species. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the past is difficult to let go of as we’re currently following the same paths of conduct as we did in the past. However, the fight against the climate crisis calls for ” rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

As historians of economics, the first thing we do when confronted with the climate crisis is acknowledge that studies of similar major-scale shifts guide our current actions. Knowing what led us into this situation could provide vital clues as to what’s needed to get us out of this.

Examining the genesis that led to the development of fossil fuel economies and the automotive industry based on gasoline can lead to a mystery. It’s yet to be known that electric and steam-powered cars were competitive for market dominance at the turn of the 20th century, not least within the U.S., where in 1900, gasoline-powered vehicles accounted for just 20% of the automobiles manufactured while the rest was split between steam and electric engines.

In a recent study in Nature Energy, we tried to figure out the factors that led to the gasoline vehicle as opposed to the electric. The usual assumption is that electric cars are more expensive and less efficient. With the help of data on the more than 36 000 U.S. automobile passenger car models built between 1895 and 1942, We discovered that electric cars were more expensive, however, not when it came to their performance. Electric vehicles of the early days were small and light compared to modern standards, which enabled early electric cars to boast an average distance of 90 miles per charge during the 1910s.

What is the reason gasoline cars were popular? Our study reveals the significance of the infrastructure, which needed to be more early for electric vehicles. We discover that the need for more access to electricity restricted electric vehicle manufacturers to cities. The car manufacturers chose their technologies based on the environment, which prevailed in the early years and the second half of the 20th century. Although the power grid grew over the next decade, the propulsion direction remained unchanged. In the early 1910s, the industry had been ensconced in an environmentally-intensive choice of technology.

The electrification of industries was beginning to gain momentum, but by the 1930s, most households needed more electricity access. One reason for this was that the market for household electricity did not make money for private utility companies. There was no public commitment to universal services before Roosevelt’s New Deal and its Rural Electrification Act, which provided federal loans for electric power construction. This New Deal, however, was a decade too late for the manufacturers of electric vehicles.

What if electricity were accessible on a larger scale? To bring out the energy of our simulations, we create an alternate world in which electricity grids would have spread at the same rate, however, 15 or 20 years before. The simulations suggest that this is sufficient to shift the balance to favor electric vehicles, particularly in cities. A more plausible scenario would be an alternative dual transport system, also proposed by the technology historian David Kirsch–with electric cars that serve metropolitan areas and gasoline vehicles occupying an advantage in the touring and the countryside.

The fossil fuel-driven transportation system is currently at the root of the climate change crisis. The impact of human activity on the planet would be drastically different if the technology of automobiles evolved towards a dual transport system or even an entirely electric one. The reductions of the CO2 emissions (and running expenses) would have been significant by slicing off up to 75 % of the carbon dioxide two emissions per mile in the 1940s when personal transportation was the norm.

Are we on the right track this time? The current situation of electric vehicles is an example. The availability of charging stations remains an issue, and so is the infrastructure needed to complement charging technology like electric roads. Electric cars in 2021 will still only make up a tiny fraction of the inventory of vehicles; in most instances, they will increase the stock of cars instead of replacing gasoline vehicles. Every new gasoline vehicle offered for sale will take about 20 years to return. This is a troubling development, especially considering research showing that only 30% of cars will be electric in 2050, according to the current policy. This means that it will take a long time before electric vehicles impact the increasing amounts of emissions from greenhouse gases coming from the transportation sector. Positively it is that demands for “Green New Deals,” with varying degrees of ambitiousness, have emphasized how essential infrastructure plays in the process. We’ve recently seen initiatives in this direction, including the E.U. “Fit for55” package adopted in this year’s election and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s widely discussed but not implemented infrastructure bill. Yet, most national roadmaps for future emission reductions are based on hockey sticks, typically not addressing the significance of infrastructures that complement each other or the integration of systems.

Our analysis suggests that the failure or success of building infrastructures that complement each other can accelerate or slow down – even stop large-scale changes. Without (infra-)structures that reduce carbon lock-in, measures such as carbon taxes or credits might be effective in theory, yet on the ground. The complementary infrastructures and systems require as much attention as the progress of technology. An emphasis on infrastructure may alter the perceptions about the role of the government, from fixing market failures to creating markets and bringing long-term stability and clarity of vision for users and producers.

According to Stewart, it isn’t easy to make sufficient temperature maps to be used in city planning, and crowdsourcing the required data is only in the beginning stages. Maps should also include areas off-road where people gather. But in the end, Stewart declares, “hot, crowded cities in lower-income regions of the world stand to benefit most” from the crowdsourced thermal maps. Cities with lower incomes in tropical regions have been historically not studied in urban climatology, and many need access to the instruments that can benefit other areas of the globe. Yet, they are the most susceptible to urban heat.


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