Electric Cars Won’t Save Us

The electric car will be an important part of a green transition. But our main focus should be moving toward green collective mobility like public transportation and away from the dominance of personally owned cars.

Electric vehicles are not a straightforward solution to a renewable transportation sector and are distracting us from energy priorities that could actually halt climate change. (Tesla Fans Schweiz / Unsplash)

Despite the commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius set by the Paris Agreement, the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it abundantly clear: without radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, the earth is due to reach that 1.5 degree Celsius threshold very soon — then surpass it.

Since the energy sector still holds the most responsibility for emissions and their impacts, electrification is mentioned frequently as an essential way to radically cut emissions, especially by decreasing dependence on oil, coal, and gas. This means a general decarbonization of the energy sector — including cuts to CH4 and N2O emissions — that goes beyond transitioning the electricity and heat grid. Electrification in energy transition also includes manufacturing and construction and, of course, transportation.

Electricity and heat generation depends primarily on coal, peat, and oil shale, whereas transportation is heavily reliant on petroleum. Transitioning the electrical grid from fossil fuels has often meant a mix of solar and wind, combined with hydropower and nuclear in some areas. Transitioning the transportation sector, on the other hand, tends to imply two things: investments in renewable energy-to-liquid fuel, hydrogen, biofuels, and others when it comes to aviation and electric vehicles on the ground. But we should be clear: electric vehicles are not a straightforward solution to a renewable transportation sector and are distracting us from energy priorities that could actually halt climate change.

Passenger EVs Are Hijacking the Conversation

The electric vehicle (EV) market grew significantly in the last decade, with about 10.2 million EVs on the road at the end of 2020. In comparison, the data for the same year indicates 0.4 million light-consumer vehicles and 0.6 million buses. The main focus has clearly been on the passenger electric car for individuals and households. Electric car sales are growing primarily in China, Europe, and the United States, and a moderate estimate by the International Energy Agency suggests about 135 million EVs on the road by 2030. The International Renewable Energy Agency projects 200 million passenger EVs.

This is, of course, a small percentage of the current global road fleet of about 1.4 billion passenger and commercial cars. Since this fleet is expected to reach 2 billion units by 2040, it also means that electric vehicles are nowhere close to actually replacing conventional cars. For the foreseeable future, road transportation will demand quantities of fossil fuels that the planet cannot afford while making urban areas even traffic-heavier than before.

In 2006, director Chris Paine released the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? The film opens with the scenario of global warming as conventional cars and their fossil fuel engines continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Personal electric cars were marketed in the 1990s in California but had virtually disappeared nearly a decade later. The quick phaseout of personal EVs was tied to pressure from the automobile and oil industries as well as the George W. Bush administration.

In 2011, the same director released The Revenge of the Electric Car. This time, one of the stars of the documentary appears to be Elon Musk and his struggle to have Tesla deliver on its promises of potent and desirable EVs. Together, the films position the fossil fuel industry and its conventional cars on one side, contributing to global warming, and electric vehicles on the other side as the answer to global warming.

Since electrification is so key to mitigating emissions from the energy sector, it only seems logical that conventional cars be replaced by electric cars that can perform the same, be attractive to consumers, while being climate-friendly and easing the guilt car owners face when confronted with individual carbon footprint calculators. The promotion of the electric car as the alternative to polluting conventional vehicles creates a powerful narrative in which transportation emissions can be solved through market innovation, subsidies and tax breaks, and smart and green consumer choices. The car as a mode of transport is not questioned nor are the numbers of cars on the road and other problems connected to personal automobiles such as congestion and accidents. The car is still the star of the show — it just needs to be rescued from fossil fuels into a new age of electrical power stations on every block.

Although companies like General Motors (GM) have promised to phase out cars running on fossil fuels by 2035, the entire automobile industry will not shift from conventional vehicles into EVs in the next few decades. The trend is toward diversification, with electric versions of key car models by every automaker, in addition to EV-only companies.

If one looks at goals for the electrification of the transport sector, passenger EVs are seen not as competition to targets for electric transit but as complementary and desirable investments. The European Commission actually treats electric passenger cars as important disruptive technology in the electric mobility matrix. These will require greater public investments in charging infrastructure than a much heavier focus on electric transit would — but the amount of resources needed for such a change that centers personal cars is hardly questioned.

A Problem of Priorities

The hype over passenger EVs is fueled by marketing campaigns that target individual consumer choices rather than a deep transformation of the transport sector. Big automakers want to sustain their stream of income and lessen the threat presented by calls to restrict passenger cars in favor of unprecedented investments in buses, trains, bike paths, and more walkable cities. It is a problem of priorities for transportation and urban planning but also a problem of resource availability.

When the World Bank released its 2020 report on the mineral intensity of the energy transition, it estimated a large growth in demand for strategic minerals for low-carbon technologies. Graphite and lithium production alone would have to grow by at least 500 percent to meet the demand for transitioning current energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels. The report excludes from its estimates the need to provide new infrastructure for about 840 million people as well as the mineral demand need to put an extra 135 million EVs on the road in the next decade. This means that actual demand for transitioning old infrastructure and expanding and building new ones would be much higher.

But the “green minerals” are limited in supply, and their extraction impacts local communities and ecosystems. In the case of lithium mining, it threatens water access and the sovereignty of indigenous territories and promotes a new model of sacrifice zones. This is true both in the Global South, as in the case of mining conflicts in Chile, and in the Global North, where lithium exploitation also affects indigenous rights in the United States and Australia.

If we are to avoid further conflict and destruction connected to capitalism’s growing demand for minerals, whether traditional or “green,” the passenger EV paradigm is part of the problem. A transition into renewables is absolutely necessary to mitigate climate change, and extracting new resources will be needed. But if critical minerals are limited and we want to minimize the impact of extractive activities, when faced with the choice to electrify millions of households for the first time or build more passenger EVs, the former should take priority.

To Kill the Electric Car

Green mobility is not the same as green automobility. If resources are limited, we should favor more efficient approaches to the electrification of transportation that actually reduce the demand for energy overall, including renewables. The current system of technological innovation does not reward tech that is most useful but tech that combines profit with industrial economies of scale. It is no wonder that there are already millions of passenger EVs while the tech for heavy-duty EVs is much less advanced.

Tech innovation alone will not save us.

We need an overhaul of the transportation sector that takes mobility seriously by treating it as a right rather than as a new way to turn a profit. This requires a change of infrastructure away from cars in general, with a public transit imperative that allows for sharing a limited fleet of electric passenger cars for needs connected to health and accessibility, as well as very particular needs like carrying heavy objects across town. Nonpassenger EVs will still play a role beyond public transit, for example, with ambulances and postal services.

These need to be designed according to need and efficiency, with batteries that are easily recyclable and components that fit well into a circular-economy model. The public sector needs to play a main role not only in the provision of infrastructure but as the driver for innovation in electrification of vehicles at universities and other research institutions.

By providing attractive mobility alternatives that actually reduce the general demand for strategic minerals in the transition toward renewables, we may ease the pressure on areas affected by extraction. The passenger EV frenzy, on the other hand, only tends to worsen these contradictions and should be considered part of the package of false solutions sold by green capitalism. In the end, the fossil fuel industry did not kill the electric car — but our job is to kill the domination of the passenger electric car and the distractions it promotes.