The Dark Side of Electric Cars: An Exploration

Electric cars are the new rage as the world is in search of cleaner and more sustainable modes of transportation. However, are electric cars the most efficient solution to zero-carbon transportation? This article delves into the problems associated with the electric car revolution and the impact it will have on the world.

The Electric Car Revolution

Electric cars have been around since the turn of the 20th century, but they have only recently become a viable alternative to gas-powered cars. A decade ago, only 130,000 electric cars were sold worldwide, representing only 0.17% of the car market.

However, in 2021, 6.6 million electric cars were sold globally, accounting for 8.5% of the car sales that year.

Drivers are now switching from gas guzzlers to electric cars, and charging stations are springing up across Europe, the United States, and China. Major car companies have also all but declared the end of the internal combustion engine. While this is exciting in theory, is it the path we want to go down, and are electric cars the most effective solution to zero-carbon transportation?

Lifecycle Emissions of Electric Cars

The electric car is cleaner than its gas-powered cousin, but it still causes emissions across its lifetime. A medium-sized electric car in Europe, for example, creates around 76–83 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent for every kilometer driven across its lifetime. For comparison, a similar-sized car with a conventional engine emits the equivalent of 250 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer.

Lifecycle emissions of electric cars in Europe are currently 66-69% lower than gas-powered cars, with that range dropping a little lower to 60%–68% in the United States, and 37%–45% in China. These numbers will continue to drop as electricity grids decarbonize.

The Extractivist Relationship

The material consequences of completely switching to electric cars are immense. If all of the UK switched over to electric vehicles, they would need just under twice the annual production of cobalt, three-quarters of the world’s production of lithium carbonate, and more than half of the world’s annual production of copper.

However, this is just for the UK alone. The resource demand for switching to electric motors will put immense pressure on countries in the imperial periphery which already provide the majority of the precious metals and materials for electric cars.

The extractivist relationship has led to exploitative mining conditions in the Global South so that the Global North can glide around emissions-free and enjoy luxury tech items. Electric cars embody imperialist relationships, but even if electric vehicles were a perfect transportation option, the most optimistic projections suggest that the US fleet will only be about 50% electrified by 2050. A number well below what we need to keep within 2C of warming.

The Path Forward

Electric cars emit less than gas-powered vehicles across their lifetime, but they are still not the cleanest or most ethical transportation option. They are a stopgap solution.

A truly carbon-free and anti-extractivist, anti-imperialist transportation system looks much different. However, the path forward may not be clear at the moment. It is time to come up with creative and innovative solutions to create a truly sustainable transportation system.

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