There’s no doubt that electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids are a better alternative than gasoline-guzzling internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs). It’s true that, in general, these cars do release less greenhouse gases over their lifespan than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts.
However, to keep the changing climate less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as is recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we’ll need to make changes more drastic than simply switching to electric cars. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), transport was responsible for approximately 23 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010, and thus is a major area of improvement in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
From a sustainability perspective, there are a few issues with the electric car. The first lies in the resources used and the greenhouse gases emitted during the manufacturing process.
EV batteries are made from finite resources such as lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel, which need to be mined and processed before the battery itself can be manufactured. Lithium mining is not only carbon-intensive due to the use of heavy machinery in the extraction process, but it can also cause environmental damage such as the pollution of Tibetan rivers near the resource mines.
Meanwhile, the energy required to power EVs is often sourced from non-renewable resources, such as coal. In order for an EV to be significantly more sustainable than an ICE vehicle, the electricity from which it’s charged must come from renewable sources such as hydropower, wind, and solar energy.
At the end of 2015, only 32 per cent of Ontario’s electricity production came from renewable sources, while the majority came from nuclear generation.
Finally, EV batteries can’t currently be recycled efficiently. Yes, there are a few success stories of people and companies giving EV batteries a second life, but most of these electric batteries aren’t being repurposed or recycled.
Finding new uses for these powerful batteries could help extend their lifespans. Once they can no longer be used, the batteries could be dismantled and their components recycled, which would reduce the need to mine raw materials.
In short, the conception, powering, and end-of-life disposal of EVs and their components has a significant impact on the environment, meaning they can’t be considered the sole answer to reducing vehicle-related greenhouse gas emissions.
What we truly need to do is rethink commuting as a whole.
I say this as someone who drives a 2011 gas-fueled SUV. Driving a car is almost necessary where I’m from, due to the lack of infrastructure connecting my hometown to Kingston. But what if that wasn’t the case?
Developing better infrastructure—such as bus and train routes—and making them more affordable and convenient than driving, would encourage the use of public transportation and allow numerous people to enjoy its benefits. Even better, these buses can be electricity-powered, as will be the case for part of the Kingston Transit bus fleet in 2020.
In a perfect world, people in cities would more frequently partake in active transportation such as walking or biking in designated lanes, as is already the case in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands.
A recent report from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee maintains that “government should not aim to achieve emissions reductions simply by replacing existing vehicles with lower-emissions versions.” Instead, “the availability, quality and cost of public transport, alternative options such as walking and cycling, and car share schemes” will have an impact on one’s decision as to whether or not to purchase a car.
In other words, if the infrastructure were more conducive to active and public transportation, and discouraged driving all personal vehicles—both ICE cars and EVs—more people would consider going carless. Not only would this help moderate climate change, reduce congestion and prevent millions of deaths related to motor vehicle collisions, it would also make us healthier and happier.
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