Musings on the Motoring World

Electric cars won’t save the world from climate change

Amidst all the news and recent activism over the ongoing catastrophe from our decades-long habit of dumping plastic in the ocean, the United Nations has raised the alarm to remind the world of the greatest challenge of our time, climate change.

Despite all the headway made in getting nations to agree to The Paris Agreement to keep global temperature rises to below 2°C over pre-industrial levels this century, the latest estimates from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that even a mere 1.5°C increase – which we will hit by 2040 at the current rate we are going – will result in significant environmental changes that will displace and starve millions around the world.

Photo by Shaah Shahidh

Since the news broke, media outlets have begun echoing the alarm from these latest projections with Gawker’s Jalopnik proclaiming that we all need to buy electric cars from now on to save the planet and ourselves before our petroleum fueled hedonism ultimately dutch oven the whole lot of us to an undignified end. All things considered, despite the Panel’s recommendation that replacing fossil-fueled passenger vehicles between 2035 and 2050 would keep temperature rises within the 1.5°C threshold, going out and buying an electric cars isn’t so much the solution as it is more akin to wrapping ourselves up in a nice comfy comforter to make us feel better about ourselves as the proverbial dutch oven continues to speed us to our demise.

At this stage, electric cars are still lying on the expensive end of the market, very much out of reach to the vast majority of the market with all the limitations when it comes to recharging such as living in an apartment block like an average income earning pleb. Instead, electric cars are now more or less occupying the hybrid’s former status as the go-to choice for cashed-up early-adopters who want to show off how much more ‘woke’ they are compared to poor people.

Though that being said, surely like hybrids, time and mass-market proliferation will see prices tumble but that doesn’t completely address the environmental cost that goes into mining the metals needed to goes into making batteries. Now, we aren’t talking about the cost in human lives or degradation of the local environment from mining – that will be of little concern to the distant foreign parties who will buy the end-product. Instead, we need to address the challenge of acquiring the minerals needed for the production of the batteries that go into electric vehicles as they are only found in parts of the world that is nowhere near the infrastructure needed to process them to turn them into useable batteries much less assemble electric cars, with the exception of China.

Most of these metals would have to be transported from country to country, depending on where the facilities are available to process these metals, which means being loaded onto a cargo ship, and if you don’t already know, cargo vessels aren’t beholden to the same environmental regulations as your economy hatch.

If Dieselgate has had you huffing and puffing in anger at Volkswagen’s sleight of hand, rest easy in knowing that the emissions from those giant diesel engines onboard those seafaring leviathans that are bringing over your organic hemp shirts aren’t regulated, neither are the aeroplanes bringing over your free-trade chocolate regulated for that matter. The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre (CDIAC) has its own category for the annual CO2 emissions of international aviation and maritime transport, because where borders end so does bureaucratic responsibility. The CDIAC estimates that this category of transport is responsible for emitting 1.12 gigatons of CO2 in 2015, just 0.2 gigatons less than the whole of Africa. Marginal in the grand scheme of things, but not insignificant either. Shipping companies have only recently agreed to regulate their emissions, with the aim of halving it by 2050, which may go some way in reducing the energy expenditure and supply chain emissions of electric cars, though it doesn’t change the immovable geographical obstacle in battery production, and a scale-up in demand might equate to a further rise in emissions just to get the end-product to market.

Photo by Kinsey

While studies have shown that electric vehicles will emit less CO2 over its lifetime than an internal combustion engine, even with the electricity grid’s current level of dependence on fossil fuel power generation, all the hard to quantify waste products from production, transportation, and packaging (you’d be surprised at the amount of plastic used to protect cars in transportation), throws shades on its green credential boasts.

Many of the early emission regulations in the 1970s and 1980s weren’t so much birthed to combat climate change but were made to solely to cut down on the pollution around urban areas that were causing its only little problems in respiratory problems, acid rain, and retarding childhood development. However even as the environmental movements of the 1990s grew, the demand for environmentally friendly cars never quite expanded far beyond the controlled urban environments from which it -and its supporters – was birthed from.

Photo by Christopher Burns

While buying an electric car over a fossil fuel powered vehicle still should be encouraged, as demand and more oversight will possibly reduce emissions down the line, it is still part of the same fundamental problem that underpins our environmental footprint, which is conspicuous consumption. As much as engineers and the marketers might tout the cleanliness of hybrid and electric cars, the truth of the matter is that no amount of environmental conservation comes from the same ideology that got us into trouble in the first place. The better cure for conspicuous consumption isn’t a different sort of consumption but conservation.

In that case, the better short-term solution is to maybe stop changing cars so often, opt to buy used cars from the late-1990s to the mid-2000s when emissions and safety levels were very much improved over its predecessors, and even take up motorcycle riding if you really need your petrol itch scratched – since it uses way fewer resources to produce, transport, and maintain. Sure there will always be concerns on the long-term reliability of keeping a used car, but constant and routine maintenance is the less appealing but more prudent move that will yield its own rewards, a reward that will hopefully mean the continuation of our civilisation.

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