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EVs are taking us for a ride
Electric vehicles (EVs) are often touted as “the” solution to Climate Change, the ultimate panacea, the silver bullet permitting us to live on as we always have, without the need to make any inconvenient changes or awkward adjustments to our soft and cushy lives. All it takes to absolve us of our complicity in the demise of the planet is to purchase one of Musk’s modern-day miracles. Never mind that it’s old technology and that the first crude electric car was developed in 1832 by Robert Anderson, a British inventor.¹
In fact, history is repeating itself. In the early 1900s Gasoline and Electric were having at it. Edison versus Ford. We found ourselves at a fork in the road where, in hindsight, we picked pretty poorly. Gasoline, as we know, became the reigning king of transportation. In a familiar deja-vu, electric was ditched for having too short a range and lacking the necessary infrastructure.²
The trouble is, at 20% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Transportation is hard to ignore as a leading cause of our warming climate. Digging deeper, we find 41% of those emissions are caused by cars not freight or shipping, activities which we consider essential to our comfort and the smooth running of our daily lives, but by the passenger car, the most personal of vehicles.³ In the EU the figures are worse, cars are responsible for 60.6% of GHG emissions emitted by the transportation sector.⁴ Indeed transportation is the only sector where GHG emissions have increased in the past three decades in Europe, rising by 33.5% between 1990 and 2019.⁴
Globally, there are 1.5 billion cars on our roads. Some nations are particularly enchanted by them such as the USA and New Zealand which average a person per car.⁵ Europe in comparison averages closer to 2 people per car.
As a matter of fact, Americans enjoy their cars so much that they use them for any occasion. In 2021, 52% of all US car trips were less than three miles, with 28% of trips less than one mile. Only 2% of all trips were greater than 50 miles.⁶-⁷
Before you reach for the pitchfork and start shouting at your monitor about how Americans should get off their large posteriors and try walking or cycling once in a while, it’s not quite that simple.
See, we’ve either designed or adapted our cities around the automobile with little regard for other means of mobility. Los Angeles is the perfect example of a car-centric, sprawling and dispersed, low-density metropolis which began its major growth at the dawn of the automobile era. It embraced the then-new technology with no consideration for the repercussions and side effects. An error of short sightedness which many of our European cities also suffer from.
The Marshall Plan, which sought to provide financial assistance from the US to restore the economic infrastructure of post-war Europe presented a tremendous marketing opportunity. One that Ford gladly seized. By the 1950’s the US car market was already saturated but cars were not yet widely adopted in Europe. Ford broke into an entirely new market by influencing the redesign of European cities to accommodate the very product he was selling, the automobile.⁸
70 years on we find ourselves in a bit of a pickle. We’ve become hopelessly dependent on one of the very causes of global warming. The means by which we choose to get about, unfortunately, are relentless agents of climate change. Mind you, not as significant as what we chose to eat.
Enter the electric vehicle -
Cars emit CO2, they contribute significantly to global warming, and we use them too much. What can we do? Well, let’s build cars that don’t!
The manufacturing process of an average EV typically releases 15% more emissions than an equivalent gasoline vehicle. For larger EVs that can be as much as 68% higher.⁹ This is largely down to the intensity of lithium battery production.
According to Argonne National Laboratory, the average lithium battery consists of 8 kg of lithium (12kg for a Tesla), 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese and 14 kg of cobalt. For every tonne of mined lithium, 15 tonnes of CO2 are emitted through machinery, transportation and processing.¹⁰ Conservative estimates reported a global output of 588,000 tonnes of lithium in 2022, hardly the decrease in C02 emissions we’re after.¹¹
Unfortunately, the emissions from mining these raw materials aren’t the only environmental impacts or indeed social impacts of this lithium boom. Soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss and damage to ecosystem functions are some of the other side effects of lithium mining. Lithium
For the same tonne of mined lithium, 2.2 million litres of water are used through evaporation ponds. Toxic chemicals are also needed to process lithium and they are typically released into the environment via leaching, spillage or air emissions, all of which harm the ecosystem, local communities and their food production.¹² Water pollution and depletion apply pressure on local communities and result in conflicts between them, as in the lithium fields in the Salar de Atacama salt flats in northern Chile. Questions about human rights violations and child labour continue to arise in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which produces 60% of the world’s Cobalt.¹⁰ According to Credit Suisse analysts, 2023 will see 736,000 tonnes of lithium extracted.¹¹ The reality is, this increasing demand for rare metals will inevitably worsen the situation for these frontline communities and their immediate environment.
Whilst there is much contention around the break-even point of an EV, the point where its carbon footprint matches that of its internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) equivalent, the average would appear to be approximately 15,000 to 20,000 miles.¹³
Of course, the provenance of the electricity used to charge the battery has the biggest influence on the break-even point. Using a Toyota Corolla and a Tesla 3 as a comparison — if the Tesla 3 was powered exclusively by a coal-fired grid it would have to run 78,700 miles to reach carbon parity with the Toyota Corolla.¹³ In Norway, where most of the energy is produced from renewable hydropower, parity could allegedly be reached after just 8,400 miles. Unfortunately, far from every country is as “green” as Norway meaning that in most cases all we’re doing is migrating the pollution elsewhere. This of course has some benefits such as filtering the emissions from a single point rather than many exhaust pipes. We’d also benefit from quieter cities with cleaner air thus protecting our lungs, brains and other organs. But ultimately on a global level those emissions are still being released into the atmosphere. Some researchers such as Damien Ernst from the University of Liege claim a typical EV would in fact break even anywhere between 41,000 and 93,000 miles, whilst, as you’d expect, the American Petroleum Institute claims GHG emissions for EVs and conventional cars are almost identical.
Post manufacturing and much closer to home, there are concerns about the higher levels of dangerous particulates emitted from the brake pads and tyres of EVs. Through the process of regenerative braking, where the motor works in reverse to slow the vehicle and recharge the battery at the same time, it would seem EVs use their brake pads less. So much so that they usually far outlast those of conventional ICEVs.¹⁴
With less braking comes less friction comes less heat. Hence EV manufacturers are not beholden to open discs and brake pads which shed heat faster and more readily, but rather, can fit brake drums which enclose the pads and thus trap the particles that would otherwise be rubbed off and released. Whilst far from all EV models are designed this way, the VW ID3 has adopted brake drums on its rear wheels. Increased particle emissions released from tyre wear also seem to have been largely exaggerated with studies showing largely similar results for both EVs and ICEVs.¹⁴
Finally, there is the question of supply. Whilst China currently controls 70%-80% of the supply chain for EVs and lithium-ion batteries, significant shortages are predicted in 2023. According to Stuart Crow, chair of Lake Resources, “There simply isn’t going to be enough lithium on the planet, regardless of who expands and who delivers, it won’t be there”.¹⁵ So far, the recycling process of lithium has been heavily curtailed by profitability but with a dwindling supply and booming prices this is set to change in the coming years.
EVs are more of the same -
We now find ourselves in a situation where our city planning, our architecture, our jobs, our leisure activities and our very way of life are so tightly intertwined and dependent on the car. It’s the ultimate personal vehicle, the very symbol of freedom, of opportunity and potential.¹⁶ It’s so ingrained in our culture that it’s become a right to own and use a car. Ironically, the very symbol of freedom has shackled our potential for progress.
EVs have a lot of problems. The impact of their extraction and production on the environment is colossal. The damage they cause to frontline communities is reminiscent of the appalling destruction caused by oil. Think of the Alberta Tar sands: toxic, flayed, alien landscapes of devastation violated and desecrated by transient industry workers drifting through, eager to leave these blighted lands as soon as they have saved enough money. The harm of their work justified by their short-term contract and the fact that they don’t consider these lands home.¹⁷ The appeal of EVs is the potential for reducing emissions, however these claims are heavily contested and in even the best case scenario significant emissions are released into the atmosphere throughout their lifecycle whilst unimaginable destruction is unleashed on biodiversity, natural habitats and local communities.
The issue with EVs is that they are just more of the same. The fact that we’re bickering and quibbling over a few thousand miles is proof that it’s simply not that much of an improvement. The choice we should be making is not between a new ICEV and a new EV or even in between a second hand ICEV and a new EV, but between an EV and no car at all. We’ve already manufactured billions of cars and have already paid the carbon cost. Why are we talking about manufacturing billions more?
The EV craze has been an incredible boon for car manufacturers. We’ve requested the very feature that’s allowed them to repackage and carry on selling an old product as shiny and new. We’ve played right into their hands and they have gleefully obliged.
Companies such Google and Apple recruit science fiction writers, the likes of Neal Stephenson, for their visions and creativity to dream up the next big product or service. Disappointingly, when it comes to transportation we have been shockingly unimaginative. We have very much been thinking inside the box and a very old box at that. Whether because it has suited the vested interest of car manufacturers or because it has suited us to blindly and wilfully believe that we are doing our bit or simply because we are so afraid of Change. But be assured Change is coming, one way or another.
We forget that the streets are in fact public commons which have been monopolised by car use. They’ve become dominated by increasingly large, fast and armoured vehicles which take up subsidised public space to move and to be stored.⁸ We’ve traded our peaceful public and social spaces for convenience. The convenience of getting about individually. Non-polluting yet more vulnerable road users are hugely disincentivised from sharing the road. Who wants to play Russian Roulette every time they cycle to the shops or indeed who even wants to walk on a narrow payment as armoured tanks whizz loudly past? The pavements too have been condemned.⁸-¹⁸
70% of Londoners prefer to use public transport.¹⁶ Unlike rural areas, cities benefit from interconnectedness and proximity meaning they are the first to implement new solutions. Paris has embraced bicycle lanes and bicycle culture and parts of Finland have designed their infrastructure around them, whilst Ljubljana began pedestrianising its streets in 2007 with great success.
It’s time to start thinking of fresh solutions and alternatives, not the same tired, old, repackaged practices we’ve employed for the past seven decades. What might these look like? A network of canals? Zip wires? Drones? Rails? Cycle paths? Could we redesign our cities? Encourage neighbourhood car sharing? Enhance coordination and logistics between ourselves to reduce trips?
And so on this note, dear reader, I leave you with an invitation to truly think outside of the box and to dream up whatever wild, crackpot, screwball, eccentric ideas your mind can possibly conjure.
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