An electric car charging

More on Electric Cars – Life Cycle Emission Concerns

2 March 2020
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
The environmental and ethical ramifications of electric cars and battery technologies need to be taken into consideration before being hailed as a panacea for the global mobility crisis, writes Professor David Hensher.

Most of the world’s electricity comes from carbon and is likely to be the case for decades. Exceptions include the power generated by nuclear plants as in France for example, which emits zero carbon. Energy stored in batteries looks like being the most common way to fuel electric cars in the future, although other technologies may evolve (hydrogen, solar, wind). A big concern with battery technology is that key chemical components are sourced from extractive industries which in the main are lithium and cobalt, rare earth materials often mined in countries in Central Africa in particular where low cost child labourers working very long hours provide the manpower to extract these minerals from the ground. In addition, in China, the country with the greatest anticipated take up of electric cars designed to reduce end use emission, the likelihood of the generation source for electric cars will be fuel-burning utilities operating with coal. This seems like a continuing toxic combination and raises the more challenging question of why we seem so committed to protecting the future of the car when all so called environmentally aligned plans appear to be besmirched no matter what direction they take.

The ‘solution’ to mobility, the ultimate reason for car use (hence the original name ‘automobile’), has to be found from somewhere else. While we would prefer to seek a more global dominating solution through shared mobility typified by high capacity public transport, we are seeing an almost revolutionary focus on car based sharing through ride share (e.g., Uber, Ola) and car sharing (e.g., Go get, car next door), and one wonders whether this is really a panacea for what is fairly described as a crisis of mobility aligned with ever increasing congestion on the roads and environmental pollution!

At the centre of the concern is a solution, but a complex one, shrouded in societal self-interest. It is known as sharing, and the growth in mobility sharing if achievable may be the way to tackle this dilemma. While more people in cars will certainly improve the performance of the transport network, it may have limited long term impacts on the environment as populations grow (especially in cities), and the amount of car based kilometres increases even with greater occupancy. We will inevitably have to do something about repricing the use of the car regardless of whether it is private or shared in a corporate offering, and the great appeal of the latter is that the user charge can hide the emotionally charged desire to tame traffic through congestion charging. It becomes a fee for service like any fee and can have a peak and off peak charging regime similar to electricity.

But again, this may not be enough if the energy sources (let along the abuse of child labour) are themselves inappropriate. Mobility clearly is the great challenge of the 21st century, redefining the meaning of space and time, and I believe that the ongoing challenge is to find better ways to move people and goods that give us more confidence in achieving appropriate congestion reduction and life cycle environmental improvement outcomes. It is not obvious that car-based initiatives will be adequate or appropriate.