Are we right in maligning the internal combustion engine?

By Dhruv Behl | on December 10, 2021

Its invention, in the late 19th century, literally revolutionised the world we live in. It gave people individual freedoms that they could only have dreamt of before. But, while it catapulted development – societal and individual – it has, of course, been a contributing factor to the unprecedented rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

But why has it become everyone’s favourite whipping boy, and why are we turning a blind eye to thermal energy generation and other forms of industrial pollution, not to mention shipping, aviation, and everything else that’s as much, or more, of a contributing factor? Is it simply because the automotive industry is a soft target, or is it because, in the wake of Dieselgate (the VW diesel emissions scandal), we’re painting the entire industry with the same thick ‘black’ brush?

Volkswagen TDI Engine View

Are we conflating corporate fraud with the broader issue of greenhouse gas emissions? What Volkswagen did was cheat emissions tests to get around regulations for a particular generation of engines. That they had the audacity, at the same time, to market them as ‘clean diesels’ only made matters worse. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the internal combustion engine has never been cleaner or as efficient as it is today. And that’s to say nothing of how efficient the manufacturing process has become – to the extent that producing an ICE-powered vehicle can be almost half as polluting as producing an equivalent EV.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that EVs aren’t the future. I’m merely saying that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should debate the availability of rare earth metals and lithium. We should assess the recyclability of batteries. We should consider the geopolitical, strategic, and environmental concerns of switching fuel sources. We should think about where our energy is coming from. 
  
There’s a desperate need to separate the hype and political hyperbole from the truth, and to initiate a nuanced discussion about all these issues. Have we become so polarised about this issue – like everything else plaguing society – that we can’t even begin to have a rational discussion? 

This isn’t an issue of technology, energy, or even emissions, it’s one of rationality – that’s what appears to be missing in this conversation. Until we put a premium on honest rational debate, we risk jumping from the frying pan to the fire...

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