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Electric Bus Was Killed Off 100 Years Ago

Energy
Electric Bus Was Killed Off 100 Years Ago
An electric bus in London. Domdomegg / Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The electric bus would have let Londoners enjoy clean air early in the twentieth century, saving millions of people from breathing problems and premature death, but dishonesty and double-dealing promoted the internal combustion engine instead.

The world is only now slowly waking up to the scale of the problem. Air pollution caused by fumes from the hundreds of thousands of vehicles on our roads is one of the big killers of the modern age, especially in cities, and is, along with climate change, a serious threat to the future of the planet.


It is not just fast-growing cities like Beijing or Delhi that are reeling from the effects of vehicle pollution.

At least 40,000 deaths in London each year are attributed to outdoor air pollution, much of it the result of the noxious fumes emitted from internal combustion engine-driven cars, trucks and buses, particularly those fueled by diesel.

Yet, as investigative journalist Mick Hamer wrote in his excellent new book A Most Deliberate Swindle, much of this pollution could have been avoided.

More than a century ago the technology existed for electric vehicles, hailed today as one of the main ways to tackle the urban pollution crisis. The adoption of a revolutionary vehicle called the electrobus could have ushered in an age of clean transport and clean air.

Hamer tells the story of how a massive fraud of shareholders and various other scurrilous activities acted as a severe brake on the development of electric transport.

"One thing is pretty certain," wrote Hamer. "The electric vehicle wouldn't have been stuck in the doldrums for a century, and today's electric revival wouldn't have had to start from zero.

Petrol's Moment

"Our cities could have been a whole lot cleaner, healthier and quieter. The electrobus swindle didn't just impoverish the shareholders of Edwardian England. We were all robbed."

Turn the clock back to 1906, when the age of horse-drawn public transport is gradually coming to an end in the United Kingdom. A number of petrol-fueled buses are on London's streets. They are noisy and smelly—some of them catch fire. They are prone to breakdown.

The electrobus—powered by batteries—is noiseless, emits no fumes and is more reliable. Its backers say it's also cheaper to run than petrol vehicles.

This was the age of the entrepreneurial investor, a time when members of the public were caught up in a rush to become shareholders in all manner of get-rich-quick schemes—from gold mines in the Amazon to rubber plantations in Malaya.

Shares in Demand

The public fell over itself to buy shares in the London Electrobus Company and what was considered to be "the aristocrat among public conveyances."

The problem was that while the basic idea of the bus was sound, the people behind it were not. Hamer lists a colorful cast of devious characters—headed by a German-born lawyer and including the nephew of the Greek prime minister and his astrologer, a music hall artist, a crooked judge and a gunrunner.

Shareholders were systematically deceived by "solicitors and accountants who could not be trusted to add up the pennies in a child's piggy bank."

"On top of the fraud, bribery and blackmail, there was champagne, sex, juicy divorce cases, a drunken brawl and motoring derring-do. This was no longer a simple story about an electric bus."

Some electrobuses did run on London's streets. Harrods, the fashionable department store, used electric delivery vans till 1918.

In 1911 a fleet of 17 electric and hybrid buses was running in Brighton, on England's south coast, but by then the London Electrobus Company—wracked by court cases and press exposés of its fraudulent goings-on—had gone into liquidation.

Boost for Oil

Along with Henry Ford's model T car, internal combustion-powered buses were starting to be mass-produced, and costs dropped. Oil consumption grew dramatically.

Perhaps the air would be a lot better today if it weren't for those fraudsters of more than 100 years ago.

"If battery power worked for buses then other vehicles might have followed suit," said Hamer.

"In the grand scheme of things, the failure of an electric bus may seem trivial, but it led ultimately to the failure of electric delivery vehicles," Hamer added.

"The result was a resounding victory for the internal combustion engine, which in turn established acceptable levels of noise and pollution. We still hear and breathe these consequences today."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

A large patch of leaked oil and the vessel MV Wakashio near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on Aug. 6, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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By Jeff Berardelli

Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020

If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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