Are electric cars bad for the environment?
I was alerted to this story by the Globe – which this morning is trumpeting going behind the paywall as “access for all” (Orwell would be proud: newspeak lives). I am not going to link there since they were in any event simply recycling something. Not – I hasten to add – plagiarism. Just what we all do – and in this case adequately cited, though without the necessary web links. Which of course Google gets quite quickly.
The Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles is available from the Wiley online library – and since it has yet to appear in the paper version of the Journal of Industrial Ecology you can get the whole thing as a pdf though that may not last for long. What the Globe was doing was reporting on an on line discussion on Leo Hickman’s blog – part of the Guardian’s web presence – and one that I freely admit I had missed.
The study looks at both the potential of increased emissions from the manufacturing process – especially for batteries – as well as the source of the electricity. The EV has often been criticized as an “elsewhere emission vehicle” (49 million google hits on the phrase) – it may have no tailpipe emissions but if the electricity comes from a coal fired power station …
Here are the key conclusions
The production phase of EVs proved substantially more environmentally intensive. Nonetheless, substantial overall improvements in regard to GWP [global warming potential], TAP [terrestrial acidification potential], and other impacts may be achieved by EVs powered with appropriate energy sources relative to comparable ICEVs [internal combustion engine vehicles]. However, it is counterproductive to promote EVs in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal, and lignite combustion. The electrification of transportation should be accompanied by a sharpened policy focus with regard to life cycle management, and thus counter potential setbacks in terms of water pollution and toxicity. EVs are poised to link the personal transportation sector together with the electricity, the electronic, and the metal industry sectors in an unprecedented way. Therefore the developments of these sectors must be jointly and consistently addressed in order for EVs to contribute positively to pollution mitigation efforts.
All of which is fair enough since all they are doing is comparing one sort of car to another sort of car. Which is why the big problem of electric cars gets completely missed. As I have often written on this blog the problem is the overuse of cars – far more than how those cars are powered or constructed. As a policy issue in urban areas – and after all most of us live in urban areas – what we need to confront – here and elsewhere – is that when most people use a single occupant vehicle for most of their trip making, the consequences are dire. Traffic congestion is the one that gets most noticed, as it is the most obvious, but add to that the horrendous toll on life and limb caused by collisions, the health impact of not using your own muscles enough and being sedentary for most of the time, and the sprawl of urban areas onto productive farm land and essential natural areas (loss of biodiversity and the greenhouse gas collection function of forests are merely examples).
I find it offensive that I am being accused of “a rapture of techno-narcissism” when I have long been advocating some very old fashioned ideas. Electric trains, trolleybuses, and trams as well as human powered bicycles were all widespread at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. Not to mention the somewhat obvious wisdom of building places where it was both possible, safe and pleasant to walk – something humans were able to do for millennia prior to gadarene rush to rebuild cities to accommodate the automobile. Or even something that seems revolutionary in Vancouver but has always been instinctive in older cities – places to sit down comfortably outside in public spaces without any payment being required.
Something similar seems to be going on with the debate about the pipeline. I really do not think that the main issue is the possible impact of spills on either land or sea. It is the problem of burning ever more fossil fuel that worries me. The oil sands are one of the worst offenders simply because of the amount of energy it takes to convert tarry sands into liquid fuels. If we had better ways of moving ourselves around – and we could have very easily and relatively cheaply – then the oil could stay in the ground. Possibly not forever – since there are so many other really clever things we can do with petro-chemicals, for which there often fewer readily available alternatives. Burning the stuff or making non-biodegradable plastic bags is simply profligacy, given the increasingly precarious future we face.
Or as Bill McKibben states
“We also figured out that we’re not going to win just fighting one pipeline at a time. We have to keep all those battles going, but we also have to play some offense, go at the heart of the problem.”