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Are Electric Cars the Solution?

Or do visions of ‘clean’ robots supplying mobile freedom steer us down the wrong road?

Andrew Nikiforuk 25 Jan 2022TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

Fifty years ago, the French political ecologist André Gorz explained that cars masquerade as solutions to the very problems they create. “Since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the destruction caused by cars.”

Today, cars powered by electricity rather than petroleum have become the promised solution to climate change.

According to Bloomberg, about half of the world’s transportation vehicle sales by 2035 will be electric. Many now assume this switchover is already ushering in a “green transition” to a better world. “Electric vehicles are not just the wave of the future, they are saving lives today,” gushes one environmentally-focused non-profit.

Now, for the record, I own a 22-year-old Toyota 4Runner designed after a Japanese military jeep. My car-savvy wife purchased the vehicle for $3,000 nearly eight years ago. I have never been fond of cars or their associated expenses, but I do appreciate a machine that can last more than 400,000 kilometres. Yet, as my books attest, I am no fan of internal combustion engines, or ICEs, let alone petro states.

However, neither am I an enthusiast for wishful thinking. People who regard the electric car as a significant solution for climate change don’t seem to understand the incredible scale of the problem. Nor do they see that the electric car “solution” accelerates other problematic trends in our technological society.

I’m more in accord with New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, a Californian and an EV owner, who notes with droll irony: “To deal with an expensive, dangerous, extremely resource-intensive machine that has helped bring about the destruction of the planet, let’s all buy this new version, which runs on a different fuel.”

By now you’re on to me. I reject the optimistic narrative for electric vehicles. Instead, here’s what I fear. EVs will end up simply adding to energy demand by vastly accelerating society’s embrace of automation and artificial intelligence.

My sense is that industries pushing electric cars are not so much concerned with slowing down extreme climate change as they are accelerating technological control over our lives — all under the guise of liberation. We’ve been groomed to accept this as inevitable progress. In 2015, Google engineer and ultra-techno-optimist Ray Kurzweil pronounced autonomous electric vehicles a sure thing that, as one article paraphrased, would “free us up to do something else instead of driving during the commute.”

Before we embrace that vision as good for us and the planet, allow me to raise a few quibbles.

Emissions

Let’s begin with the assumption that switching to electric vehicles will make a huge contribution to lowering emissions.

Passenger vehicles produce about 10 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Other forms of transportation collectively add another six per cent. Approximately 1.4 billion ICE vehicles now clog the world’s ever-expanding road system. Replacing every one of these old farts with electric wonders — even if such a scheme were possible — would only address 16 per cent of the carbon dioxide problem.

Actually, not even. Because if we assume all the new electric cars run on “renewable” energy such as wind or solar power, these systems require fossil fuels for their manufacture, installation and maintenance. In fact, it takes more carbon emissions to make an electric car than a conventional vehicle because of the energy intensity of battery manufacture. And of course electric cars run on roads made of and by fossil fuels.

But the problem is more complicated than that. Houston energy analyst Art Berman raises another neglected point. Transport is not the main use of ICEs. Of the 165 million internal combustion engines manufactured in 2020, less than half, 78 million, were destined for the road. Agriculture, manufacturing, power generation, forestry and construction accounted for the other 53 per cent, says Berman.

Mining

Replacing ICE cars with EV cars likely won’t radically reduce emissions, but these machines will energize and expand the globe’s energy intensive mining sector.

Last year the Paris-based International Energy Agency published a report on critical minerals needed for electric cars and renewables. The IEA, no radical organization, described the EV revolution as a “shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system.” In other words, buying an electric car just moves civilization’s ever-expanding industrial footprint from one kind of mining to another, from fracked well pads to open-pit mines.

About 10 per cent of the world’s energy spending now goes to the extraction of minerals. According to the IEA, the electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional vehicle. Most of these minerals go into the battery manufacturing. They include lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, copper and graphite. There are other minerals with names like neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium.

According to the Geological Survey of Finland, “the production/consumption of industrial minerals increased by 144 per cent between 2000 and 2018.” An EV boom will accelerate that industrial assault on ecosystems around the world, creating, as the IEA notes, a host of environmental and social challenges. “The prospect of a rapid increase in demand for critical minerals — well above anything seen previously in most cases — raises huge questions about the availability and reliability of supply.” No kidding.

To make one tonne of lithium, mined in high and dry alpine places like Chile and Tibet, requires 500,000 gallons of water. Lithium mining is no more green or clean than hydraulic fracturing or bitumen mining. “Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the Earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, as far back as 2009. “This isn’t a green solution — it’s not a solution at all.”

About 90 per cent of the world’s rare earth minerals come from anti-democratic states such as China or impoverished states such as the Congo and Bolivia. Experts expect the demand for minerals to grow so wildly that the potential for “the cartelization of producers” is inevitable.

In other words, don’t expect the politics of rare earth mining to be any more wholesome than those of petro states. About half of the globe’s lithium and copper deposits are concentrated in geographies experiencing high water stress. Just like fracked natural gas.

The picture darkens. According to Mining Watch Canada, base metals such as nickel and copper generate 20 to 200 tonnes of solid waste for every tonne of metal extracted. Rare earth minerals such as platinum make a million tonnes of waste for every tonne extracted. As things now stand, says Mining Watch, Canada’s influential mining industry “generates over 30 times the volumes of solid waste that all citizens, municipalities and industries combined produce on a yearly basis.”

Unfortunately, the ecological consequences of rare mineral mining will only get worse over time. We have largely mined the richest and easiest veins to access. As ore quality declines, industry will spend more fossil fuel energy to move more rock to gather fewer minerals with greater waste volumes. A group of British geologists recently looked at the global situation for lithium and here’s what they concluded: “The lower grade and higher impurity profiles of the new types of resources, which are needed to feed the battery industry, will incur higher costs and higher environmental impacts. These costs and impacts could grow significantly larger unless new resource extraction technology is developed and deployed.”

Recycling lithium is a great idea, but to date it is still more economic to mine more of the stuff than to grind old battery packs and sort out their rare earth ingredients. Although material specialists are working on battery designs that use fewer rare minerals or are easier to recycle, EV battery construction remains dependent on energy-intensive minerals. Only five per cent of electric car batteries are currently recycled. Yet by 2030, the electric car industry will be discarding 11 million tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries with few places to recycle them.

Energy storage

Let’s return to the issue of scale again, because scale matters in all things. An electric car without a storage battery is about as useful as an internal combustion engine car without a gas tank. The ecologist Bill Rees recently noted in a paper that the U.S. consumes about “4,000 terawatt-hours of electricity every year, or 563 times the existing battery storage capacity.”

But doesn’t Tesla now operate the largest lithium battery factory in the world in Nevada? Yes, it does. But an entire year of battery production from the multibillion Gigafactory could only store three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electric demand. Rees offers another eye-popping calculation: “Storing only 24 hours’ worth of U.S. electricity generation in lithium batteries would cost $11.9 trillion, take up 345 square miles and weigh 74 million tonnes — at enormous ecological cost.”

Autonomy

Meanwhile a brave new technological imperative accompanies the production of electric cars: self-augmenting automation. In other words, a car capable of driving itself from point to point while its passengers sleep or play video games.

The Harvard futurist Tony Seba believes that replacing the combustion engine with electric vehicles is only the first phase of a massive hi-tech revolution. This era of EV introduction will “be overtaken by a second phase of disruption driven by the economics of autonomous electric vehicles [or A-EVs] providing transportation-as-a-service.”  

Consider the heralds, though, of this coming Utopia. Seba also thinks high-tech food production called precision fermentation and cellular agriculture will replace traditional animal and plant rearing. He celebrates an imagined time when disruptive new technologies will deliver a net-zero carbon world by transforming citizens into serfs that munch on test tube protein while trapped in driverless vehicles. (As a general rule, futurists never think that communities should decide their own futures let alone determine what tools they may want to use and at what speed.)

In many ways the autonomous electric car represents the growing force of technology in everyday life or what some experts now call the technosphere.

It replaces walking, a natural pursuit, with an artificial one. It claims to be, like every new electric gadget, “the one best way.” It connects to and abets other technologies that now monitor everything from our travel habits to our heart beats. It transforms every geography into a servant of concentration and automation by the ever-expanding technosphere. 

Savings-cancelling behaviour

How will people use EVs? That’s an important question because a species with a Paleolithic brain and access to god-like technologies doesn’t use energy in rational ways. Let’s consider the case of ride-hailing. Companies like Uber and Lyft promised to fight climate change with ride-hailing apps that delivered a vehicle to your door faster than Aladdin’s genie. Did the technology result in carbon savings? Absolutely not. More than a dozen studies show that ride-hailing simply replaced low-carbon alternatives such as walking, cycling, public transit or that notorious marvel of staying put. The result: more emissions and more congestion. 

These paradoxes have dominated the use of the combustion engine carbon car. As vehicles got smaller with better mileage, what did the industry do? It invented the SUV, a heavier and more carbon-intensive vehicle. Any gains made by vehicles with higher mileage were cancelled by the multiplication of more energy-intensive SUVs. And yes, industry now plans to make electric SUVS with bigger and bigger batteries. 

A similar scenario is now playing out in jurisdictions with lots of hydro dams and electric cars. Norway, a wealthy petro state with low population density, leads Europe with EV sales of 62 per cent thanks to high subsidies and lots of taxes on combustion vehicles.

To date the evidence from Norway suggests electric cars are making a dent in emissions, but not a big one. In that country, emissions dropped 3.5 per cent in 2020, the year the pandemic cut into driving miles. Curiously, two-thirds of Norwegian families have merely supplemented their conventional vehicles with an EV instead of abandoning the combustion vehicle altogether. About 60 per cent of all miles navigated in that mountainous country are still driven by ICEs while EVs perform the rest of “mobility consumption.” Nordic owners of electric cars — just like the ride-hailers — also tend to use public transit and bicycles less. Do EV users tend to drive fewer miles because of range anxiety or because they treat their EV as an additional virtuous vehicle? No one has a good answer to the question yet in Norway or anywhere else.  

The best of intentions can and have gone awry with renewables. People who install solar panels to recharge their electric cars have used 18 per cent more energy because they view it as a free good.  Consumer behaviours regularly make a mockery of economic and engineering predictions. U.S. engineering professor Bing Dong offers this key observation: “Current models for understanding the electricity consumption behaviours of co-adopters of these technologies have one major limitation — these models are largely engineering based and do not account for actual consumer behaviours.”

Our likely destination: Renewable electricity, fuelling electric cars and other machines, will accelerate overall energy consumption. Green gadgets will expand our industrial energy footprint, not shrink it. What appears to be an energy transition, may only be an energy addition, warns U.S. sociologist Richard York: “We should not assume that growth in the production of renewable energy sources is indicative of a move away from fossil fuels. Indeed, if the current moment of change in energy composition is like previous ones, we may expect simply an expansion of the overall amount of energy that is produced.”

Or, as U.S. ecologist William Ophuls recently wrote about the electric car chimera: “Instead of understanding that an automotive civilization is an ecological impossibility in the long term, it aims instead to substitute electric vehicles using renewable energy for ones running on fossil fuels. This hair-of-the-dog approach, even if it were completely successful, would do little to reduce the ecological impact of humankind.”

Imagine differently

What we really need to do is seriously imagine a society with fewer vehicles and drivers — human-scaled technology.

We need to think locally and act locally using less energy, period.

We need a systematic effort to reduce global road networks and highways everywhere by at least 50 per cent.

We need walkable and bikeable cities.

We need to recognize that mega-cities represent mega-complexity geared for failure.

We need to wean ourselves off the infantilizing ideals of futurists trying to sell us a technosphere that attends to our every needs but only serves one end: a world dominated by the efficiency of machines and mechanical thinking. Such grandiose visions come with grave costs to the planet and our own self-determination.

We need to begin in our own communities, right now, constructing a resilient future for ourselves rather than waiting for Silicon Valley’s digital cocoon to envelop us.

We need to appreciate that big and fast machines only build fragility and invite non-linear ecological disasters.

We need to recognize that economic growth spreads the cancer of climate change.

Last but not least, we need leaders capable of abandoning the kind of thinking that worships more technology as the only solution capable of repairing the damage caused by previous technologies.  

Perhaps the last word should go to Ivan Illich, a great prophetic voice. The philosopher warned a half-century ago that unlimited and clean energy might appear to be the solution, but deliver its own problems. “Even if non-polluting power were feasible and abundant,” he wrote, “the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving.”

We need to consider that wisdom now more than ever.    [Tyee]

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