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Electric Cars Won't Solve Climate Change

Electric cars might look great in your driveway, but they're a symbol of a systemic problem: an ineffective, car-based approach to addressing transportation's climate impacts.

ConorBronsdon | @ConorBronsdon | March 9, 2021, 12pm PST
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Matej Kastelic

Elon Musk is wrong; Tesla won't save the planet from climate change.

Electric cars might look great in your driveway, but they're also a symbol of a systemic problem: a consumer and car-based approach to addressing transportation's climate impacts. Not only that, they're ineffective solution to climate change.

Transportation-related carbon emissions are the top source of U.S. carbon emissions

Transportation-related carbon emissions account for 14% of our global carbon emissions and are the largest source of U.S. carbon emissions at 29%. Therefore, it is crucial that the U.S. cuts our transportation emissions to meet the Paris Climate accords' goal—50% of our 2017 emissions. While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily lowered some of these transportation emissions in 2020, the long-standing trend is that we've failed to make a dent in our transportation-related emissions—they've stayed all but constant for the past 15 years.

Graph of Net US Greenhouse Gas emissions by industry/sector

Net U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by industry/sector. (Rhodium Group)

Suppose we fail to address climate change and the air pollution emissions from gas vehicles. In that case, we have significant problems looming: mass species die off, increasing natural disasters, destruction of our fisheries, horrible air pollution, wars over water, and much more.

With 82% of U.S. emissions in 2018 coming from road vehicles, it's clear that we need to cut our emissions from cars by taking combustion engine vehicles off the roads as rapidly as we can. The solution that has been popularized for this? Electric cars vs gas vehicles—and electric vehicles don't go far enough.

Carbon lock-in: the #1 problem with electric cars

The biggest problem is carbon-lock in—when we spend to build something like a power plant or an electric car, the economics, and sociology of the new production incentivizes continued operations. After making significant investments in a solution, companies and governments don't want to switch to a better solution immediately—they make considerable capital investments in new construction or purchases, and they pay off those investments over time.

With manufacturing lines for cars, new power plants, or oil pipelines, there are also jobs associated with new facilities, and this further complicates shutting down such efforts due to economic and social entanglements. This is the problem with Tesla; they’re not intent on finding the best solution to our climate crisis.

Due to this, temporary solutions—such as a mass retrofit to electric cars—are hard to move on from. Just like when a family purchases a gas vehicle, they're unlikely to buy a new electric car or stop driving that car the very next year due to the sunk cost of the vehicle. We can't afford to take half measures; the investments we've already made in today's energy system may already push us past the goals of the Paris climate agreement, even if we immediately stop investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure. We need to think bigger and reimagine the systems we use to address the climate crisis, move people, build, and more.

The massive investment in electric vehicles is one that could be spent on other solutions with significantly more impact: such as building mass transit and changing construction practices to increase density enabling walkability and micromobility options.

We can't continue to be locked into a car-based system—that's not thinking big enough.

Logistical challenges with changing to electric vehicles

There are multiple other problems with prioritizing electric vehicles as the key solution to our climate crisis versus merely a piece of the puzzle. One issue is one of logistics and scale - there are estimated to be more than 1.4 billion, potentially as many as 1.5 billion vehicles in operation in the world today—and that number has been doubling every 20 years or so since the 1970s. It's untenable politically or logistically in many countries to quickly swap out or retrofit all current vehicles for electric. Even with accelerating electric vehicle adoption rates, electric cars are a vast minority of new car sales.

Electric cars won't save us

Politicians don't want to tell you that electric vehicles won't solve the ecological problems created by transportation. The car companies certainly want you to think they will, proposing electric cars as the latest thing to buy and lobbying for tax credits and incentives for electric car purchases. However, electric vehicles won't solve our carbon emissions challenge fast enough – and prioritizing cars as a transportation method is extremely inefficient when it comes to space in our cities, another crucial part of the climate change equation.

With 2019 the second warmest year on record, we need urgent action. The problem is, electric vehicles aren't zero emissions and on average produce more than eight metric tons of CO2 in manufacturing and production plus an additional two metric tons of CO2 per year based on the energy mix used for electricity generation. The production of lithium batteries for electric vehicles also comes with a host of environmental and human rights concerns: including child slavery, massive water usage, pollution, and more.

Not only that, the wheels of electric cars have the same disastrous impacts as gas vehicles: the particulate matter from car wheels is spreading throughout the environment and killing fish and other wildlife, including Salmon.

With less than a decade to reduce carbon emissions to 50% of our 2017 annual emissions, electrics cars won't get us nearly close enough even if we drastically increase our electric vehicle production and immediately switch to electric vehicles. Instead, we'll lock-in a level of carbon emissions that is unsustainable, particularly as personal vehicles are sold across the world's burgeoning population.

Fixing the climate crisis: sustainable urban environments, micromobility, and mass transit

Denser, urban cities can develop massive efficiencies in transportation, logistics, and housing that enable them to emit significantly less carbon (and cut down far fewer forests, crucial to converting the CO2 in our atmosphere) than sprawling suburban developments. If everyone has an electric car in the future, it’ll take up significant urban space, particularly compared with alternative transportation modes. In urban environments (where the majority of the world’s population lives and where a full 68% of the world’s population is projected to be by 2050), there are plenty of other greener, more sustainable options.

Research shows that roughly half of all car trips in US cities are under three miles and can be replaced with zero-emissions micromobility options such as scooters and bikes. For those who may not want to get unduly sweaty ahead of a business meeting, or who can’t or don’t want to put in the effort, e-bikes are a great option and can take tons of car trips off the road, saving space in our cities, and taking car trips off the road entirely.

Urban environments allow us to leverage mass transit with buses, rail, and subway systems, all providing vast efficiencies over moving people vs. cars. These are also significantly more accessible to people without the considerable upfront costs of purchasing a car, not to mention the public health benefits of avoiding all those car accidents, one of the leading causes of death in the United States.The good news? Getting off fossil fuels pays for itself

One of the under-discussed factors with getting cars off the road is that know it pays for itself. Car companies certainly don’t want us to think about the fact that even if climate change didn’t exist, the air pollution from gas vehicles more than pays for the cost of transitioning to alternative transportation options. As researchers continue to hone in on air pollution’s direct and indirect effects, they’ve realized just how stark the problem is. At the August 5th, 2020 hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Drew Shindell, Nicholas professor of earth science at Duke University (and a lead author on both recent IPCC reports), laid out the numbers: “Over the next 50 years, keeping to the 2°C pathway would prevent roughly 4.5 million premature deaths, about 3.5 million hospitalizations, and emergency room visits, and approximately 300 million lost workdays in the U.S.”

As David Roberts laid out in Vox, all of those prevented deaths, illness, and lost productivity adds up to massive savings for the United States:

  • The avoided deaths are valued at more than $37 trillion.
  • The avoided health care spending due to reduced hospitalizations and emergency room visits exceeds $37 billion.
  • The increased labor productivity is valued at more than $75 billion.
  • On average, this amounts to over $700 billion per year in benefits to the U.S. from improved health and labor alone, far more than the cost of the energy transition.

These are vast numbers—as clean energy has gotten so inexpensive, it’s clear that the air quality benefits alone are enough to pay for the energy transition. While climate change can only be halted with the cooperation of the world, the numbers show that even if the United States were to be the only country to get rid of fossil fuels and the benefits of avoiding global warming were not to materialize, the air quality benefits would still pay for the cost of divesting from fossil fuels.

Shindell’s team looked at a scenario where the United States met the zero-emissions standards of the Paris Climate Accords 2°C while the rest of the world continued with current policies. Shindell testified that “We found that U.S. action alone would bring us more than two-thirds of the health benefits of worldwide action over the next 15 years, with roughly half the total over the entire 50-year period analyzed.”

Regardless of whether we can fully combat climate change, it’s clear that we need to divest our society from fossil fuels—saving lives and money while reducing urban sprawl and commute times.

We can build a sustainable future

Electric cars are not going to save us alone. While they’re often touted by marketing and government officials as the solution to our climate challenges, the truth is that we have to adjust our transportation model entirely and move away from a car-centric approach to transit to achieve better health outcomes, combat climate change, and avoid poisoning our rivers. While electric cars are superior in their pure greenhouse gas emissions to gas counterparts, they are still bad for the environment in other ways and inefficient ways of moving people that encouraging suburban sprawl.

If we’re still sprawling outwards as populations grow, we’re not going to be able to achieve the efficiency needed in transportation and housing to meet our climate and space needs. We’ll also deeply damage our environment, getting rid of green space for single-family housing, cutting down trees that are doing important work filtering carbon from the atmosphere, and poisoning our rivers and streams with the heavy metals present in car tires.

Instead, we need more efficient transportation forms to be prioritized, letting us move people faster and with far fewer carbon emissions. Rail, both high-speed and in-city light rail, is an essential part of this equation: buses, micromobility technologies, and increased biking and walking through dense, interconnected neighborhoods with safe walking and riding areas.

If we divest from fossil fuels, the United States can be a more prosperous, healthier, and altogether more enjoyable place to live. Companies and conservative politicians have sold us a lie: to have a thriving economy, we need to sacrifice the planet. But the truth is that we can electrify our grid and transition to a sustainable and just green economy. The future is bright: if we’re willing to aggressively make changes over the next 10 to 15 years. 

Republished with permission from conorbronsdon.com

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