The Many Pros and Cons of the Great E10 Switch – Part Two.

Sugarcane is one of the crops used to produce bioethanolused in E10 petrol.

E10 petrol is already here and well on its way to becoming the default option at the forecourt. Not everyone is a fan, to say the least. In Part One of this article, we saw some of the problems associated with this higher ethanol blend. This time, we’ll look at the arguments in its favour.

1. The UK has to meet its emissions targets

Ultimately, all the other arguments for E10 stem from this one: the UK has targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and E10 is one method to achieve this.

Of course, this begs a huge question of why we in the UK need to curb our 1% of global emissions, when other countries are adding far more. Or to put it another way: why should UK citizens pay for fixing climate change, when China and India (for example) are still building coal-fired power stations?

Well, we’re not politicians or philosophers, but here are three things to think about:

  • Historically, the UK has contributed about 4.4% of all the greenhouse gases currently floating around up there. That is not a small amount. Along with the other developed nations, we have more a responsibility to clean up the problem we’ve made.
  • Reducing emissions is like a game of chicken, where each country looks to see what the others are doing before committing themselves. Poorer countries look to comparatively rich countries, like the UK, to show leadership.
  • India and China do have massive renewable energy programmes, but without fossil fuels, these simply can’t meet their growing energy demands. Their governments have a choice of not building new fossil fuel power stations, or keeping countless millions in energy poverty. It’s much easier for us to change.

Ultimately, whether you think those arguments hold water or not, our emissions targets are now enshrined in law. The Government is obliged to reduce our emissions or face legal peril. The only question is where the emissions axe should fall. If E10 is a viable and fair option, we should use it.

2. Motorists have to help

Recent surveys have shown that the vast majority of the UK population is on board with fixing climate change. Most of us see the urgent need for action… right up until the moment when it impacts our own lifestyle. It’s human nature that we all want something done, but want someone else to pay for it. Addressing climate change is one long round of finger pointing. If we take our holidays at home, we want the frequent flyers to pay more. If we’re vegetarians, we point at meat-eaters. If we use public transport, we want to tax motorists. And everybody wants the super-rich to pay more – probably with some justification.

As motorists, we resent having to pay more — whether that’s from the reduced fuel economy of E10 or being forced into buying more expensive fuels. And yet there’s no question that, somehow, the transport section has to reduce emissions. After all, transport contributes more to our overall emissions than any other sector. But more than that, the transport sector’s emissions are falling slower than anywhere else. The reason for this is that historically, governments shield the motorist from anything too punitive. We agree that it doesn’t always feel like that, but bear in mind that fuel taxes have been frozen for a decade.

Whatever penalties there are for motorists, they haven’t discouraged us from buying — on average — bigger and bigger vehicles, nor from taking more short journeys in them. So it could be argued that in the grand scheme of things, motorists haven’t done too badly so far. From this point of view, E10 is just motorists playing their part.

3. For most people, E10 isn’t that much of a problem.

The vast majority of the UK’s 32.7 million cars will run quite happily on E10, and be unaffected by the change. But how much will the lower fuel economy of E10 cost us? The most common estimate is that E10 reduces your fuel economy by roughly 3%. With an average annual spend of £1042 per year for drivers of petrol cars, that means an increase of around £31 a year. And while no increase is welcome, 60p a week shouldn’t be too much of a burden.

However, we can’t skip over the fact that 600,000 owners of older cars will be forced to buy more expensive higher octane fuel. What’s worse, as we pointed out last time, is that those owners tend to have lower incomes. So, it turns out that the people most affected by the E10 switch are those who are least able to afford it. There’s no getting round this, and is an issue that affects most climate-friendly measures. So far, governments worldwide have done little to address it.

Obviously, the numbers of affected cars will decrease every year as older models reach the ends of their lives, but that’s no  consolation to those stuck with a non-E10 car right now.

4. E10 may be greener. Just about.

In Part One, we mentioned that E10 brings its own set of environmental problems. For one thing, it encourages us to replace wild areas with farmland, which is the last thing the planet needs. Meanwhile the Government contends that E10 will reduce our emissions by 750,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent to removing 350,000 vehicles from the road. How should we weigh the two claims? Who knows for sure?

So, where does all that leave us with E10?

The issue of E10 has turned out to be much more of a head-scratcher than we had imagined.

On the one hand, it seems clear that the UK has to meet its climate targets and that the motorist has a role to play. For most people, E10 won’t be a big deal for their bank account or their lifestyle. However, on the other hand, there will be a substantial number of people on low incomes who are picking up a much greater tab — and that can’t be right.

Then there’s the question of whether E10 actually does any good at all. As non-experts, it seems to us that at best, E10 is only a stop-gap. The most generous assessment is that it’s a compromise in an imperfect world. A more cynical view might be that it’s an exercise in looking like we’re doing something, without creating too much protest.

Environmental groups say that if we really want to reduce transport emissions, we could start by choosing more economical cars and taking the bus more. And some will undoubtedly reply: OK, you first.

Phew! We’ll be back next time with something a bit lighter!

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