Electric vehicles are not the only mode of transport to a sustainable world

The energy crisis in the West is an apt reminder of just how complex transitioning from fossil fuels is

Electric vehicles recharge their batteries at the East Crissy Field charge station in San Francisco, California. AFP
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The concern over power blackouts becoming increasingly more common in parts of Europe and the US has added another level of jeopardy to the energy crisis that has pushed prices up around the world.

Last weekend, people in California were asked to reduce air conditioning and cut other electricity use during peak heat as record high temperatures added further strain to a creaking power system. The state’s renewable energy sources, such as solar, dip at critical times and older, less reliable infrastructure cannot always bridge the shortfall in demand.

California’s grid operator urged people to conserve power between 4pm and 9pm, including avoiding charging electric cars.

The timing of this measure regarding EVs could not be more ironic, as the state last month announced a ban on the sale of new petrol-powered cars by 2035. It shows the limitations of the technology while we remain in an energy transition that we hope will get the world to net zero and limit global warming.

There is plenty of momentum for EVs at the moment. US President Joe Biden wants at least half of new vehicles sold in the country to be electric or plug-in electric hybrids by 2030.

This ambitious target has also raised the prospect of loosening US mining regulations to ensure that there is enough domestic production of electric vehicle minerals. There will be an environmental cost to such a move, of course, but it is seen as imperative.

As China controls 60 per cent of the world’s lithium mining, 77 per cent of battery cell capacity and 60 per cent of battery component manufacturing, many US electric carmakers, including Tesla, rely heavily on imported battery materials.

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Owning an electric car could become a way to put the realities of our changing world out of sight and out of mind

The current energy crisis also highlights the fragility of one of the benefits of owning an electric vehicle over a conventional car – cheaper running costs. Now EV owners will be impacted by the rising costs of energy. Had, for instance, British Prime Minister Liz Truss on Thursday decided against capping energy bills for households and businesses at about £2,500 (about $2,900) a year, the cost of a full charge at home for an EV could have been nearly double by the end of the year.

As individuals, it might seem as if the decision to buy an electric car – and more people are doing so – can be a quick personal aid to the global effort to reduce carbon emissions. On the face of it, this might seem worthy.

However, it still cannot be overstated that the definition of the word "transition" in the phrase "energy transition" is what needs to be most understood, as we push towards a net zero carbon world.

The transition period requires finding a balance between climate efforts, access to affordable energy sources and supporting economic recovery – and mitigating all the associated impact on the planet such as rising emissions. Managing this return to growth following the Covid-19 pandemic has not been easy amid the current shocks to economies.

Everywhere we look, there is the daunting prospect of overhauling systems – food, health, trade and, of course, energy. At an individual level, the same balance must be found too.

The temptation to see a single transaction about personal mobility as the apex of what an individual can do to help is understandable. It seems such a quick win in the face of what might otherwise be a demoralising challenge. Also, the marketing around the sale of electric cars is becoming more powerful by the day.

Owning an electric car, however, could also become a way to put the realities of our changing world out of sight and out of mind, because it does not address their impact on resources or the energy supply and demand dynamic. In many instances, the emissions are not saved but rather only displaced, given that grids are rarely fully powered by non-carbon emitting energy.

In the worst case, the delusion of assuming that owning an electric car is any kind of total solution to the climate crisis can result in some people thinking that they now have the moral licence to act more unsustainably in other areas of their lives. As a society, we have accepted the hard truths about the unsustainable way we have been living and working.

Electricity pylons and power lines near the Paluel nuclear power plant in Paluel, Normandy, France. Bloomberg

That is an accomplishment in itself. But to believe that the choice of car is more important than it is, would be a betrayal.

Thinking in terms of broader groups of people is the only effective strategy. Rarely is such a dialogue present where electric vehicles are concerned, instead it is about the individual only and what it says about him or her.

We should ask, instead, what we can do as organisations – at work, at school and at play – to help mitigate global warming and also what we can do to help avoid the risk of energy blackouts from over-burdening our energy resources.

Of course, long-term mobility will change and traditional fuel-powered vehicles will become outdated – just as other inefficient and damaging technologies have been superseded. It will only be one part, however, of the broader mosaic of a more sustainable future.

By all means, as an individual, rethink your methods of transport, but as one element of a wider lifestyle shift that includes understanding how our energy systems work and determining what choices would be the greater benefit to the largest number of people.

Or risk – as we see in California – a struggle to stay mobile despite the shiny new car parked outside.

Published: September 09, 2022, 4:00 AM
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