When we talk about climate change, especially when we’re talking about “solutions” to climate change or “getting to net-zero”, we talk about electric vehicles. Around the world, transitioning to electric vehicles has become a policy priority and practically a market mandate: the E.U. has enacted a ban on fossil fuel-powered cars beginning in 2035, as has California; Volvo will be fully electric by 2030, and G.M. by 2035.
Over their lifecycle, electric vehicles produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional ones, even when accounting for those associated with production (mining the materials, for example) because electricity is so much more efficient than combustion as a way to move things around (about 80 percent of the energy produced in combustion is heat) even if the electricity comes from coal or gas. For most places, emissions are 30 percent less for electric vehicles, but can be greater depending on the power source.
But I do think that the necessity of transition to electric vehicles has been magicked into conventional wisdom with a lot of glossing over. Of course gasoline-powered vehicles are a problem: transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., accounting for 28 percent.. But we seem to have skipped the essential piece here: cars themselves are the problem! Perhaps some people think that’s not worth focusing on – we aren’t going to get rid of cars – but I think we accept them as a necessity without really considering the trade-offs we are making.
There are the obvious problems with electric vehicles: as I said above, where do the metals come from? (Do I dare remind you of seabed mining?!) Where does the electricity come from? But underlying both questions is the assumption that we should continue to value and use cars and trucks instead of trying to figure out how to reduce personal vehicle ownership because cars and trucks and traffic make life more expensive and less healthy for people and planet!
Last spring, the New York Times ran this story: “In Norway, the Electric Vehicle Future Has Already Arrived,” noting that 80 percent of new cars sold in 2022 were fully electric. “Norway’s experience suggests that electric vehicles bring benefits without the dire consequences predicted by some critics.”
The story also goes on to say that Norway has been promoting electric vehicles since 1990: electric vehicles were exempted from value-added and import taxes and from highway tolls; drivers didn’t have to pay for municipal parking and could drive in bus lanes. Not to mention that 90 percent of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower, which is 98 percent state-owned, and the government also subsidized the construction of fast charging stations.
But there are only 5.5 million people in Norway! And still, electric vehicles only account for about 20 percent of all cars owned in the country. All of which leads me to think that I’m not sure how representative Norway is for basically any other country, especially those outside Europe.
So there are those considerations, which aren’t necessarily negatives about electric vehicles, and may not apply in a future where there aren’t gas-powered alternatives. But I do think that shows us that even in a place with big incentives for electrification, low-cost electricity and massive infrastructure investment, it has taken about 30 years to have 20 percent of the cars be fully electric.
Here are some actual negatives: because of the weight of batteries, electric vehicles weigh much more than conventional ones. And in the US, that’s saying something, since most cars are SUVs and trucks, which are also very heavy! (In accidents, heavy cars are more dangerous, especially to pedestrians.)
Things that are heavier require more energy to move around (this is why bigger cars get fewer miles to the gallon!) but they also put more pressure on their tires and on our roads.
So even though electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions from burning gas, they create a lot of particulate matter pollution – particularly PM 2.5, which is 1 of the 6 criteria pollutants regulated by the EPA because it can get into our bloodstream and into our lungs and cause all kinds of health problems – because they wear down their tires more, and more quickly.
A recent study of the California Clean Vehicle Rebate project found that from 2010-2021, statewide emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide declined, but primary PM 2.5 increased. The reductions were also primarily located in the wealthiest communities because, even with incentives, that’s who buys electric cars. So really they are just exacerbating existing pollution dynamics, where poor people of color are disproportionately exposed to air pollution.
Unless all of the electricity is coming from clean energy sources, they also just transfer urban pollution (from tailpipe exhaust) to extra-urban areas where the electricity is generated. It means cleaner air for people in cities (partly, except for that tire dust) and while there’s less pollution from electricity generation (or none, if it comes from clean sources), it’s not nothing.
And then there’s the physical pollution, from tires and brakes, to a lesser extent. Tires are made mostly from about 20 percent natural rubber, 24 percent synthetic rubber (aka petroleum) and then a bunch of additives – steel fillers, heavy metals, which do things like improve performance and durability and (in)flammability. All of those components, as the tires break down, get into the environment, and the synthetic rubber and chemicals last for a long time. According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trust, about 78 percent of ocean microplastics are synthetic tire rubber.
And there are other concerns: tires contain a chemical called 6PPD, which helps prevent tires from cracking and degrading. But when the chemical reacts with ground-level ozone (which happens when you’re driving and the tire breaks down into dust), it’s transformed into other chemicals, one of which (6PPD-q) is “acutely toxic to 4 of 11 tested fish species” including coho salmon, according to a 2020 study.
The original chemical is still used by all major tire manufacturers, and can be found on roads and in waterways all over the world. No one has studied the impact on the secondary chemical on human health, but it’s “been detected in the urine of children, adults, and pregnant women in South China. The pathways and significance of that contamination are, so far, unknown.”
That quote comes from this article in Yale Environment 360, equal parts enlightening and disturbing. And the research on this is just the beginning. The compound that killed the fish is just one of the more than 400 chemicals and compounds, many of them carcinogenic, and we’re only starting to learn how widespread the problems they pose might be.
But electric vehicles do mean meaningful reductions in other pollutants: “Levels of nitrogen oxides, byproducts of burning gasoline and diesel that cause smog, asthma and other ailments, have fallen sharply as electric vehicle ownership has risen,” according to the Times article about Norway.
I’m definitely not the first person to say this, and I’m also not anti-electric vehicle! But the transition to a clean transportation system doesn’t just happen — it has to be designed, and it really should be designed, especially in cities, with the idea that not everyone should have to have a car. None of this is probably true in rural areas, but it’s definitely true in cities, which is where most people live! It should be EASY to get around without a car. Having car is expensive! Taking public transportation should be the default, not only because it’s better for the environment, but because it’s cheaper and faster. Or if you want to bike or walk, it should be possible – especially if you live in a city – to do that safely.
This is also the kind of dynamic that is helped or hindered by zoning and housing policies. If places are only zoned for single-family housing, or people live far from where they work because of the divides between commercial and residential zoning, or because housing is too expensive close to where the jobs are, then people will need a car unless public transit is massively expanded.
So basically, sprawl means that people need cars, and cars mean that we can’t really escape these dynamics, whether they are gas cars, or hybrids, or fully electric. This piece is mainly about the U.S., but even Norway hasn’t solved this problem.
Plus, about 2/3 of the world’s cities or urban areas that will exist by the middle of this century don’t exist yet, and if they aren’t planned intentionally – with access to public transportation or the capacity for people to live and work and go to school close together – future generations and societies will be locked into living in their cars. The average American spent 51 hours sitting in traffic last year — 15 hours more than 2021, though lower than the pre-pandemic high of 99 hours in 2019 – and I would so much rather spend that time doing anything else! Who’s with me?!
This was originally posted on Tatiana’s Substack News from a Changing Planet, a free twice-monthly newsletter about what on Earth is happening, with articles and essays about climate change and the environment.