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Electric cars – climate saviours or eco-villains?

A vehicle recharging point at a motorway service station in Derbyshire, England.
Get wired: A vehicle recharging point at a motorway service station in Derbyshire, England. TRANSPORTIMAGE PICTURE LIBRARY/ALAMY

Owning an electric car could double your chances of getting a date.

This eye-catching claim – from car dealers Big Motoring World – gives a sense of the buzz around electric vehicles (EVs) right now. And whether or not they can ignite your love life, EVs are definitely on the rise. 

Global sales of fossil-fuelled cars have been falling since 2017 – down from 86 million to 69 million in 2022. In contrast, electric car sales increased by 60 per cent in 2022 and are projected to rise further in 2023 to conquer almost 20 per cent of the global car market.

Battery electric cars are now outselling diesel cars in the UK, and make up 26 per cent of all car sales in China.

But is this definitely good news for the planet? What about all the extra mining needed for electric vehicles, and the increased electricity demand? Aren’t we meant to be switching to buses, trains and bikes, rather than building more cars?

Ultimately, is there a risk that by electrifying the car market, we’re just swapping one set of problems for another?

Are electric cars the least worst option?

In a direct comparison, a battery-powered car is definitely better for the planet than a fossil-fuelled one.

We’re not just talking about cleaner air and less noise pollution in cities; internal combustion engines are highly inefficient, wasting over 70 per cent of the energy in the fuel.

Over its lifetime, the average EU-based electric car requires around 60 per cent less energy and emits a third of the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of a petrol car. Even in coal-heavy China, an electric car produces 33 per cent less greenhouse gas per km than a petrol car.

These savings will only get bigger as global electricity gets greener.1

A lithium ion battery for an electric car requires around 30 kilograms of new material extraction. But this number pales in comparison with the tonnes of petrol or diesel needed to keep filling a fuel tank.

Based on the current UK electricity mix, an electric car would require 10,000 kilograms less fossil fuel extraction than a petrol car over its lifetime; even an electric car run on China’s mainly coal-powered electricity would need 2,500 kilograms less fossil fuel than a petrol car.1

Even on today’s electric grids, a lithium car battery can prevent hundreds of times more material extraction than was required to make it.

The impacts of this are already being felt. The current growth in electric cars has led Bloomberg to predict that demand for oil in transport will peak by 2027, something that could have seismic impacts on the global oil industry. An oil price crash from a decline in demand could wipe out a wide swathe of oil drilling and infrastructure projects currenty in development.

No silver bullets

But before we rush to swap every fossil-fuelled car on the road with an EV, there are other crucial issues to consider.

Electric cars take up the same disproportionate road space as fossil cars, congesting traffic, slowing buses, deterring cycling and adding to the risk of accidents, with the worst-off usually suffering the greatest impacts.

Particulates from their tyres still pollute the air, and the huge public health benefits from an increase in walking and cycling would be lost.

Even though EVs require far less extraction than fossil cars, those minerals still need to come from somewhere. Indigenous rights groups have warned that replacing all fossil fuelled cars with EVs would quadruple global demand for nickel, lithium, zinc and copper by 2040. Over half of the extraction projects for these materials are located on or near Indigenous land,  and communities say they already experience displacement, harassment and violence because of this.

Strong international rules are urgently needed to halt all mining without the free, prior and informed consent of the people who live there.

A 100 per cent switch to electric cars would also greatly add to electricity demand, making the shift to renewable grids much more challenging.

EVs can play a helpful role where alternatives aren’t easily available. But they also risk feeding our addiction to private transport, endless road expansion and car culture. To avoid a dangerous spike in demand for electricity and key minerals, and to unclog our congested cities, the shift to cleaner travel still needs to be led by trains, buses and bicycles.

The good news is that electrification is happening here too, cutting the fossil fuel use of public transport and getting more people out of their cars. Outside the US, EU and China, the fastest-growing type of electric vehicle isn’t the electric car – it’s the electric bike.

Support the call for Indigenous rights over mineral extraction projects.

1 Author’s own calculations, based on Transport & Environment figures and China electricity generation mix from carbonfootprint.com and statista.com. Assumes average electric car mileage of 200 Wh/km, lifetime driving distance of 150,000 km and includes electricity grid transmission losses.

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