Imagine a world where internal combustion engines (ICEs) have been completely banned. However, not in 10, 20, or even 30 years, but a single year from now.
It’s an aggressive policy to be sure, but it would certainly expedite a reduction in fossil fuels and, perhaps, help us better meet our climate targets. Or so we can imagine.
But what would happen if we banned internal combustion engines this quickly? How would this move play out in reality, and what obstacles would we have to overcome. To answer these questions, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of the exact role this technology has in our world and understand, at least somewhat comprehensively, how many technologies, goods, and services that humans depend on (or at the very least, desire) in their daily life that, in turn, depend on it.
What are internal combustion engines?
An internal combustion engine is a form of heat engine. In fact, they are by far the most common form today. While an in-depth discussion on the inner workings of a typical internal combustion engine is out of the scope of this article, a brief overview is probably useful.
As the name suggests, these kinds of engines combust (or burn) fuel (in the presence of an oxidizer) inside the parts of the engine called the combustion chamber. This releases high temperature and pressure gases that can be used to move mechanical parts — like a piston, turbine blade, rotor, or nozzle — to produce useful work.
Burning stuff for energy is one of humankind’s earliest discoveries, and internal combustion is only a natural evolution of that early stepping stone in our development which began with the fire. They are relatively simple in concept, but the engineering of combustion engines can be fairly complex.
However, this effort is worth it, as they are incredibly powerful compared to alternative forms of engines or power (like brute animal or human force).
The product of centuries of development of various combustion-based devices (notably steam engines), the first commercially viable example of an ICE was produced by Étienne Lenoir around 1860. However, the first modern combustion engine, as we would recognize, was developed by the great Nicolaus Otto in 1876.
The rest, as they say, is history.
How important is the internal combustion engine?
We are addicted to fossil fuels, so we are told. But in fact, what we are actually “addicted” to is infrastructure. Semantics, perhaps, but it is a very important distinction.
Infrastructure is not just the roads and buildings, which might be the first things that come to mind. Rather, it is the entire network of things that we have built, as a species, over the course of millennia.
It includes innumerable, interdependent systems. For example, it includes the processing, transportation, and delivery of essential items like food and water to high-end luxury items like your favorite Swiss watch or bottle of Spanish wine. None of this would be possible with an underlying infrastructure (both locally and internationally). Unless, of course, you happen to have a Star Trek-style replicator lying around.
But it’s not just goods that we transport. We transport children to and from school, the sick to hospitals, and ourselves to meetings with friends and loved ones. We move materials out of our way and lay necessary foundations, so we can build our schools, hospitals, and homes (and supply them with water, energy, heat, and on and on).
Everywhere you look, our infrastructure is there, bringing you all the things you need as an individual and keeping our towns and cities functioning. And much of this infrastructure depends on internal combustion engines.
For the last several hundred years or so, the bulk of that system has been fuelled by long-dead remains of ancient plants and animals. And it has served us very well, too. People are more educated than ever before. They live longer and are healthier than ever before.
ICE’s are also critically important for generating electricity through gas turbines and are still our primary method of reaching space.
The invention of the internal combustion engine (ICE) more than a hundred years ago has been a critical part of this. This single piece of technology has been one of the most important inventions in human history, one which has transformed pretty much every aspect of our lives.
While we were able to produce stuff and move it around, even over long distances, long before the invention of the ICE, the efficiency, reliability, and speed at which ICE’s enable this process is like nothing like what we saw before.
ICEs are also pretty efficient, especially when compared with the options available to previous generations. Gas turbines approach 60% efficiency and modern gasoline car engines approach 35-40%. That may not sound all that appealing; however, to put that into perspective, burning things like wood in an open fire or fireplace is around 10-20% efficient, solar PV is around 20%, and wind turbines can push 50%.
The problem with ICEs
By its very nature as a technology, internal combustion engines release many gases and other pollutants that have been shown to contribute to global warming.
That said, ICE technology has also come along by leaps and bounds over the last few decades with regard to its impact on the environment. An ever-greater focus on miles per gallon (kilometers per liter) rather than miles per hour (kilometers per hour) has made modern engines more efficient, less polluting, and more compact. Internal combustion engines are also highly durable, and can even use a range of fuels — including renewable and alternative fuels like biodiesel or bioethanol. Not only that, but they can be combined with electrical powertrains to create hybrid vehicles.
While we can never completely remove all emissions from ICE’s (they are, after all, basically a form of combustion), they are a very different beast today than when they first emerged.
Nevertheless, they are a double-edged sword, to be sure, one that many believe needs to be nipped in the bud as soon as possible. So how would it play out if we banned them in a year? To begin, let’s look at just one piece of technology we use every day.
Using the fridge
Before we even begin to use a refrigerator, it needs to be built. This requires the sourcing, refining, processing, and transportation of its basic components for assembly in a factory. Every step of this process uses an ICE at some point — whether it be to power mining vehicles that remove the ore, or the trains, trucks, and ships that transport the ore, or the refinery that processes the ore.
The refrigerator factory itself will likely use electricity to keep the lights on and for the operation of the plant. That will often involve producing power using some form of a turbine (either fully or partially).
Once a unit is built, it will have to be transported to the retail shop or e-commerce supplier/warehouse where it can be purchased. This will likely have been on the back of a truck or ship, while the shop itself will be powered by electricity.
From the shop, the fridge will need to be delivered to your house — again using an ICE vehicle of some kind.
Once on-site and plugged in, internal combustion engines will be needed to keep the refrigerator on and, more importantly, stocked with food. This is because most homes use grid-supplied power that, depending on where you live, is at least partly generated by internal combustion engines.
It’s a similar story for most other aspects of your life, and encompasses everything from the obvious to the less-often thought about infrastructure like water supply, waste handling, sanitation, etc. If you’ve ever played simulation games like SimCity, you’ll understand the complexity and importance of a well-designed, and well-maintained infrastructure. Most of which is provided by internal combustion engines.
But what exactly would happen if we banned all combustion engines at a set date one year from today?
What would happen if we banned combustion engines in a year?
The most obvious question to begin with is, “could we live without them a year from now?”
The answer to this will depend heavily on where you live and your habits as an individual. For city dwellers, the complete absence of internal combustion engines would dramatically change life. For those who are more self-reliant or who live in the countryside, the impact may be far less critical and probably more of an annoyance.
Unless, of course, you are a farmer or have to travel long distances to the hospital, place of dedication, etc.
With all combustion engines now officially banned, the roads will get very quiet very quickly. No cars, no lorries, no buses (except for all-electric vehicles, for now), a dream come true for some.
Depending on how far your office or school is, it could take a while on foot or by bike. You might start to wonder if getting a horse is a good idea, at this point.
However, you would also likely experience significant power outages, perhaps even the complete shutdown of things you normally take for granted — like the internet or your coffee machine.
In the United States alone, fossil fuels supply around 60% of the total electrical supply.
Since about the year 2000, renewable technology has only risen from 356 billion kilowatt-hours to 792 billion kilowatt-hours, and now makes up about 20% of the total U.S. electrical generation for the country as a whole. While a steady growth, and accelerating, this has taken 20 years to achieve. Nuclear power supplies another 20% or so. However, that still leaves us with only around 40% of the current energy production capacity.
With ICE turbines now banned, that’s a lot of missing energy every day. It is highly unlikely that this shortfall could be made up in a single year. This makes it highly likely that you will be seeing regular power cuts.
This is exactly what happened in Lebanon recently, when the country had series of issues getting its hands on natural gas supplies for its two largest power plants, which were forced to shut down. Just like in Lebanon, you’ll probably find that energy rationing is about to become the “new normal”.
We also have an analog from just this year in the United States. Early this year, Texas suffered from a very serious power crisis as winter storms effectively disabled much of the state’s power generation systems.
This quickly led to a shortage in food, water, and, most importantly, heat, during a period of very cold weather.
With limited grid-supplied electricity, many other services will probably massively suffer. You’ll probably only find spotty internet access at home and from cell phone towers, for example. But then, you waste too much time online anyway right?
If you work from home, this might get a little tricky. Thankfully you invested in some renewable home energy generation, so you should be alright.
So far, you’ll probably still have a nice stock of food, water, and other essentials like required medicines — after all, you had a year’s warning. However, with limited to no power, other critical pieces of infrastructure, like water pumps, will likely not work.
So, you might quickly notice a dramatic reduction in water supply — this will probably be rationed now too. Hopefully, you will have some rainwater harvesting at home.
Let’s just hope no fires break out in your neighborhood. The hydrant pumps might not work — just as happened in Texas during its power crisis in 2021.
The shops (if they have power) are hopefully still stocked, but dairy and other perishable products can no longer be stored in fridges. Not a big deal in the winter maybe, but it will be soon.
That’s assuming you can actually withdraw cash or use your card to buy things, of course.
In hospitals, hopefully, they’ve invested in their own non-ICE power generators. If not, there are going to be some very serious issues very soon. With limited power, intensive care units and all their sensitive equipment will likely turn off. Unless other means can be found to provide life support for the hospital’s patients, people are about to die very quickly.
Hopefully, the weather is pleasant, as you probably won’t be able to turn on your air conditioning in the height of summer. If it’s cold out, you can probably still use your gas boiler (it is not technically an ICE), but for electrical heating systems, you could be in for some trouble.
Time to put some more clothes on, or if you are lucky enough to have a fireplace or burner, get some wood and start a fire. Just make sure the fire is contained, as the fire brigade might have a tough time helping you out.
If you are elderly, any disruption of your ability to heat your home can prove fatal. Hypothermia (and hyperthermia for that matter), can set in relatively quickly, which for someone who is housebound, perhaps living alone, is a tragic combination. If heating/cooling is supplied by grid-supplied electricity and the weather is inclement for a long period of time (like winter), the colder parts of the world are about to lose a lot of their venerable citizens.
All very troubling indeed. And the above only addresses the tip of the iceberg. Global infrastructure is, after all, incomprehensibly complex. It is nigh on impossible to predict the implications of artificially changing even a small part of it over an incredibly short timeframe, let alone banning all combustion engines (which are not a small part of it, but a very large one).
In summary, a complete, immediate ban on internal combustion engines would dramatically affect many aspects of our modern lives. Much like the impact of a cyberattack, electromagnetic blast, or solar storm on our power grid, the loss of nearly 50% of available power overnight would be catastrophic.
Food would quickly run out, power outages would be common, and many sick and old will likely pass away in a matter of weeks. Assuming society keeps any semblance of order, starvation, dehydration, and exposure to the elements could also take hold, and disease outbreaks would likely occur.
Hyperbolic, perhaps, but the complete immediate loss of internal combustion engines would be akin to a very serious, and global, disaster event the likes of which we have never seen.
The worst part? It was all completely artificial.
What would need to be done to reduce the impact of an ICE ban?
Luckily, no one is proposing an immediate ban on ICE, rather, a gradual phasing out over a much longer period of time. In short, planning will be essential.
A full and honest appraisal of the importance of internal combustion engines would be the first order of service. Use this audit, an effective strategy would be needed to identify the key areas of the infrastructure that would need non-ICE alternatives.
Any replacement would need to be reliable, robust, and up to the task of replacing machinery like natural gas turbines, etc. Vehicles can, of course, be swapped like-for-like with all-electric alternatives (which is happening anyway), but you first need to fix the problems that will incur from losing a significant percentage of electrical power generation.
The problem here is that power plants, whether nuclear, renewable, or more conventional, take a long time to commission and build.
Nuclear power plants would be the most obvious like-for-like replacement of natural gas power plants, but these are incredibly labor, cost, and time-intensive to bring online. Depending on the type in question, a typical nuclear fission power plant takes between 80 and 120 months to build. But can take much longer to approve.
Renewable power plants, like solar PV arrays, wind turbine farms, etc, are sometimes faster to build, but you’d need a lot of them to replace all-natural gas power plants. For example. according to some estimates, it takes about two months to install a 10 MW wind farm or 6 months for a 50 MW farm.
But that’s assuming the land is available, and the regulatory framework is in placee. Wind farms need a lot of space! Such estimates also assume that the actual turbines are ready for installation and don’t need to be built first.
Another potential solution is to significantly boost decentralized electrical generation using domestic-scale PV, wind, or other renewable power sources. Placing the onus on businesses, private citizens, and individual towns or neighborhoods to “get themselves prepared”, might be a way forward.
However, this also relies heavily on the skills and resources being available to provide contractors with the ability to meet a dramatic increase in demand for their services. But, with the best will in the world, the inherent issues with renewable technology (no sun or wind, for example), will likely require some form of backup power generation or energy storage system.
Such systems are also not cheap. They would require significant financial incentives or support to have every business and home become effectively self-reliant.
All well and good, but the process of fully replacing around half of a nation’s power systems with either renewable centralized, or building-by-building self-generation will take a lot of labor and resources. There are likely not be enough trained and qualified workers to do this quickly enough for our disaster scenario, although it is certainly doable at a slower pace.
Assuming that it can be done, that is only half the story. We still need to adequately replace all other vital parts of the infrastructure that rely heavily on internal combustion engines. Mass transport vehicles, commercial freight (planes and lorries), and personal transport will all need electrical alternatives. There simply isn’t the capacity to do this at present.
Drones are nowhere near ready to pick up the slack, and automated logistics vehicles are years away — if they ever arrive.
If these critical parts of our infrastructure couldn’t be addressed, people would run out of basic resources (food, water, medicines, etc) very, very quickly under our disaster scenario. Global trade would probably also collapse, as well as tourism and travel (both domestic and international).
The world would get very small, very quickly. It would not be inconceivable for countries to suddenly balkanize, with all the socioeconomic implications that usually brings.
Not good, to say the least. But also a very worst case.
The above is just a thought experiment and, as stated, no one is planning a drastic policy as banning all ICEs in just one year, or even in the next few years. But it is food for thought, especially if we will need to find some way to severely curtail our use of fossil fuels in the near future.
While not an impossibility to eliminate all ICEs, a realistic and well-managed conversion of critical parts of our infrastructure will need to be addressed in order to avoid a catastrophic outcome.
If we are to make grand changes, like removing internal combustion engines completely from our infrastructure, then it must be done intelligently and with consideration and planning, to cause the minimum amount of disruption to the system as a whole.
Slow and steady wins the race, as the saying goes.