EVs do have environmental advantages over conventional vehicles. In particular, they generate less carbon emissions during their lifetime. Of course, much of the emissions reductions will depend on how much electricity comes from renewable sources.
But carbon emissions are only one of the many problems associated with the dominance of private cars as a form of mobility in cities.
Indeed, some of these problems could be made worse — for instance, subsidies for EVs could end up favouring wealthier people who can afford new cars.
Electric vehicles deserve government subsidies, but there are even better ways to build greener, less car-dependent cities.
Mining for resources
A mass global uptake of EVs will generate major environmental problems, too. Most concerning of these is the use of finite mineral resources required for their construction, and the environmental and labour conditions of their extraction.
This was recently highlighted in a recent report by the International Energy Agency. As the agency’s executive director Fatih Birol said, there’s a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions.
Minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper are key ingredients required to make EVs.
As the report noted, EVs use double the amount of copper than conventional vehicles. EVs also require considerable amounts of lithium, cobalt and graphite that are hardly required at all for conventional vehicles. And it expects demand for lithium to grow 40-fold between 2020 and 2040, driven by EV production to meet climate targets.
There is considerable discussion of Australia’s natural advantage as a supplier of some of these minerals, as we have large reserves of lithium and rare-earth metals beneath parts of the continent.
But before governments and mining bodies rush to exploit these reserves, they need to ensure much more is done to avoid the injustices perpetrated against Traditional Owners and their lands and heritage. The recent appalling destruction at Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto’s iron ore operation is just one example of this.
To focus on these problems is not to suggest the new policies on electric vehicles are unimportant, or that they don’t stand to have some positive environmental impact.
The point is private EVs are not a solution to the combined challenges of reducing our urban environmental footprints and making better cities for all, and they have their own problems.
Instead, we should develop a good mass public transport system with extensive and frequent coverage. Alongside urban development with a more even distribution of jobs, services and opportunities, investing in better public transport could reduce car dependence in our cities.
This would have a range of environmental and social benefits: making more space available for people instead of machines, extending the benefits of mobility to people who can’t or don’t drive, and reducing demand for finite minerals.
Even fossil-fuelled public transport has fewer emissions than conventional car travel. Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows the most fuel-efficient buses and trains generate less than half the carbon emissions per passenger kilometre of fuel-efficient cars. Of course, public transport powered by renewables will be even better.