Guest column: The environmental imperative

Jonathan Kershaw

Jonathan Kershaw

Automotive researcher,
Coventry University

Jonathan Kershaw

Transport is responsible for up to 25% of all man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and half of those emissions – just over 10% of man-made CO2 – comes from the use of our beloved cars.

The need to act so as to mitigate the environmental impacts of our actions, or, as I call it, the 'environmental imperative', demands that we adopt a low carbon mobility. However, today's society – by dint of the spread of suburbia, various shift patterns or a fragmented public transport system seemingly run for profit and not for the public – appears to demand a low carbon automobility.

Much has been written about the costs, impracticalities and/or technologies of low carbon vehicles in academia and in the media (including on this website). But how many of us think about the way in which we consume the car 'as object'? In other words, how we regard the car as status symbol, as icon, as cultural artefact, as avatar, as experience. I believe that how we 'consume' the car is fundamental to the environmental impact we have individually as motorists, because such consumption influences our choice of car, how we view the car, how we aspire to the car, how we drive the car, how we feel the car.

And why we will keep on wanting, if not needing, the car.

However, the pursuit of various low carbon automotive technologies as a means to address the environmental imperative could suggest that the nature of the car may change. In one of his columns for CAR magazine in 1996, Stephen Bayley described the car as a mature product, in that we know what it is, what it does, what to expect from it. We've become conditioned to the car and how it works which, in turn, impacts upon how we consume it. Yet various low carbon technologies – such as hybrids, EVs, range-extended EVs, fuel cells – surely render the low carbon vehicle an immature product, in that while we may know what it is, the way in which it does it will, in some cases, be new. Low carbon vehicles may require new knowledges, new behaviours, new strategies, and also produce new experiences which, together, might impact upon how we consume the car.

As the adoption of low carbon vehicles is being left to the market and to the vagaries of consumer choice (with, admittedly, the odd governmental nudge), it is pertinent to ask whether the ways in which we use and regard the car today – our existing automobilities – can aspire to a future low carbon automobility, to find out whether irrationalities of the way in which we consume the car – our automotive peccadilloes, if you like – can be reconciled with the rationality that the environmental imperative demands. How do we consume the car? How will we reach a low carbon automobility? Do we even want to? Will we enjoy it when we get there?

The PhD study I am working on at Coventry University asks how we go from here, where 'here' can be thought of in several ways:

  • the latest automotive propulsion technology, whether this technology is electric, hybrid or an internal combustion engine with the low-carbon fixes and fuels, and the associated (im)practicalities of these technologies
  • the comparatively high cost of this low carbon technology, which may well decrease over time
  • what we know about the environmental impact of motoring and what we are prepared to do (and to pay) to mitigate and/or ameliorate it
  • the socio-cultural consumption of today's cars

Of course, it is the first of these definitions that concerns readers of battery improvement continues apace, fuel cells are continually developed, and the internal combustion engine is constantly refined and made cleaner. But the final definition of 'here' is just as important, as it is through the social, cultural and experiential aspects that we can begin to understand the consumption of the car. Looking at this in an environmental context, and also within a technological context, it may be possible to reconcile the irrationality of car consumption with the rationality demanded by the environmental imperative, and so provide a new perspective upon the appetite and potential for low carbon automobility.


We aspire to the car, we want the car, and we desire the car. But will the way we regard the car stop us from choosing a less polluting, low-carbon car?

In 1957, French philosopher Roland Barthes made what now appears to be an extremely prescient observation, when he suggested that the Citroën DS may mark a change in the 'mythology' of cars, noting that "until now, the ultimate of cars belonged to the bestiary of power; here it becomes at once more spiritual and object-like". The power race practised recently by, for example, some of the German marques, together with a mindset fomented by certain TV programmes, suggests that Barthes' mythological change hasn't been universally adopted.

But the environmental imperative, fostered by the threat of climate change, suggests that a change in our automotive perceptions may be overdue. Might environmental awareness acquire such a status within automobility that it supplants the 'bestiary of power' of which Barthes writes? Changes in the way we consume the car may provide an appropriate answer.