- World leaders are focusing on electric vehicles to reduce emissions and combat the climate crisis.
- But electrifying vehicles is simply not enough — especially given their large production footprint.
- To really make a difference, we need smaller cars, less cars, and more transportation alternatives.
- Paris Marx is the host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast and author of the forthcoming book, Road to Nowhere, about the problems with Silicon Valley’s future of transportation.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Climate change is happening now. Wildfires are getting worse, flooding more common, hurricanes more powerful, and heat waves more deadly. Yet when world leaders met in Glasgow earlier this month, their proposals still had the world on track for 2.4 degrees Celsius of warming — far above the 1.5-degree target. Governments aren’t doing enough, but they are beginning to take action, and many are focusing on the opportunity offered by electric vehicles.
Transportation accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and more than half of that comes from passenger vehicles. Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has taken steps toward electrification, but also failed to sign onto a pledge announced at COP26 to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles by 2040.
Electric vehicles are one piece of a strategy to slash transport emissions, but they tend to receive far more attention than proposals to cut car use. The electrification of transportation is essential — there is no doubt about that — but just replacing every personal vehicle with a battery-powered equivalent will produce an environmental disaster of its own. Such a strategy also denies us the opportunity to rethink a near-century of misguided auto-oriented city planning.
SUVs make the problem worse
Since the 1990s, SUVs have gone from being a niche vehicle segment to nearly half of new vehicle sales in the United States. When you add in vans and pickup trucks, that number rises to more than 70% of the market. These large vehicles now dominate North American roads, despite the fact that they’re at least twice as likely to kill pedestrians, have contributed to a 30% increase in pedestrian deaths from 2000 to 2019, and make it harder to cut the carbon emitted from transportation.
While fuel economy standards have improved over time, the shift from sedans to SUVs and trucks has partially offset the emissions reductions that should have accompanied those improvements. Plus, when you look at the global picture, SUV sales have also taken off to such a degree that they were the second largest contributor to the increase in global emissions from 2010 to 2018. The commonly stated solution to this problem is not to address the growing size of vehicles or the mass ownership of personal vehicles of any kind, but simply to electrify them. That isn’t good enough.
The focus on tailpipe emissions misses the bigger picture, and at a moment when we can see the complex, global nature of supply chains in our everyday lives, we need to think beyond such a limited framing of electric vehicles’ environmental impact.
For example, particulate matter created from tire, brake, and road wear, as well as the dust kicked up by cars on the road, does not fuel climate change, but it does create air pollution that’s harmful to human health. In the United States, these pollutants are responsible for about 53,000 premature deaths each year, and heavier electric vehicles like SUVs and trucks could actually generate more particulate matter than lighter, non-electric cars.
Yet while health effects are important, the biggest concern is the minerals that are required to make the batteries that power electric vehicles and the mining that has to happen to extract them. It’s a reality that seriously dirties their green image, and shows the “zero emissions” branding simply isn’t accurate.
The mining behind electric vehicles
Ahead of COP26, the International Energy Agency released its latest World Energy Outlook that estimated achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 will require six times more minerals by mid-century than is necessary today. Yet the majority of those minerals are required for electric vehicles and storage, whose mineral demand is projected to increase by “well over 50 times by 2050” as the demand for batteries to power them grows substantially. As a result, the United States is assessing its own mineral supply chains and working with Canada to expand mining activities to supply battery makers. But all that mining comes with consequences.
In North America, mining activities tend to be located near rural communities or Indigenous lands where the mines face growing opposition over their environmental impacts and the threat they pose to the lives and livelihoods of locals. Canada also isn’t free of such concerns; lithium mines in Quebec have already been responsible for environmental accidents, and Indigenous opposition to mining projects is growing.
That’s because these mines harm the surrounding environment, use excess amounts of water, and create significant amounts of waste, but they also have consequences for workers and nearby communities who often suffer from much higher rates of illness. In some countries, a more organized opposition to mining activities is forming, including groups in Latin America that call it a form of green extractivism where people and ecosystems are sacrificed in the name of the climate crisis. As plans to extract more minerals escalate, the backlash will only grow, both at home and abroad.
We need to reduce car use
Electric vehicles tend to be more environmentally friendly than those powered by gas or diesel, but they still have a significant footprint of their own that primarily occurs in the production stage rather than during their use. As long as an electric vehicle replaces all the trips a conventional vehicle might take, it will typically produce fewer emissions over its lifetime within a few years. But we need to ensure we’re not being misled by industry players that have an incentive to greenwash products that don’t do nearly enough to address the problem.
On top of the issues with mining and large vehicle pollution, continuing to have communities built around the assumption that everyone will drive simply isn’t sustainable. The automotive industry wants us to replace the vehicle fleet with battery-powered alternatives because they’ll make a lot of money in the process, but it’s not the best path for the environment, nor for our communities.
As leaders at COP26 were focused on electric vehicles, a network of mayors and the International Transport Workers’ Federation released a report arguing that public transit use needs to double by 2030 in order to meet emissions targets. Making transit available within a 10-minute walk of people’s homes would not only encourage its use and create tens of millions of jobs, but could begin to transform our relationship to mobility.
There was a moment during the pandemic where it felt that change was not only possible, but was happening in front of our very eyes. Streets were closed to vehicles so people had space to move, and temporary bike lanes were thrown up to encourage cycling. In some cities, those efforts were expanded as the worst of the pandemic lifted so people could leave their cars at home and commit to using bikes or transit. But in other cities, the push to go “back to normal” swept away those spaces, and the SUVs returned.
We should seize this opportunity to challenge the past century of auto-oriented planning and emphasize walking, cycling, and transit use over driving. Not only would people’s quality of life improve, but if we’re serious about taking on the climate crisis, we need to significantly reduce the number of cars and SUVs on the road — regardless of what powers them.