Is the injunction to “buy an electric car” the best solution we can come up with for dealing with climate change? Not only does such advice tacitly encourage more driving, it utterly fails to consider the drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (rather than just gasoline consumption) we should be striving for. It seems to me a bit like offering an alcoholic a “light” beer, because it’s got lower alcohol content and the assumption is that your comfortable drinking habit will be slightly less destructive in the short run.
Steve Scauzullo, a respected transportation and environment reporter for the Los Angeles News Group, authored an opinion piece acknowledging the reality of climate change and urging his readers to take action. So far as it goes, I applaud him for his willingness to at least try to tackle this subject and present it to his readers. He advises readers to reduce “heat islands” (i.e., parking lots), use lighter colored roofing to reflect light, and “drive an electric car.” Anything else? How about taxing carbon? Driving less by taking public transit? Pledging not to vote for flat-earthers who deny climate change? Nope. Just buy a new car and keep living like you’ve always lived.
Scauzullo’s article doesn’t even mention the less-glamorous transportation alternatives of transit, bikes, or walking, and the relatively small changes to our infrastructure needed to make that happen Not even a cursory nod. Too bad, because those simpler alternatives, in addition to reducing GHGs, would also reduce traffic deaths and injury, reduce traffic congestion, and result in a more active, healthy lifestyle (all of which are big money-savers for society). Moreover, driving less is something everyone—regardless of income—can do now. You don’t have to wait until you have $35,000 for an EV or until there’s a charging station at your office. We can take public transit to work, walk, or ride our bikes for many of our shorter trips. Start one day a week—just one—and work up from there. It gets people weaning themselves off the car, and prepares them to think about mobility beyond the resource-intensive and costly automobile system.
Let’s consider his suggestion to reduce heat islands. Unfortunately, it fails to consider why we have constructed so many parking lots in the first place. Indeed, the big box store in the middle of a huge asphalt parking lot is the perfect ur-symbol (and symptom) of automobile-centric sprawl. The asphalt jungle is what it is primarily because of the desire to design the built environment exclusively around the automobile for the last 80 years. Switching to EVs won’t do a damn thing to reduce the demand for huge asphalt parking lots. Best case scenario from this bit of advice is that a bioswale and a few trees might make the Wal-Mart parking lot a couple of degrees cooler as you load your eSUV full of more disposable plastic crap (much of which is made from petroleum and shipped halfway around the world, ballooning its carbon footprint), but it’s not going to cool the planet’s climate. Moreover, if we assume that the rest of the world’s 7-plus billion inhabitants follow our lead and want their own EVs and Wal-Marts, the result will be the creation of a lot more heat islands the world over, not to mention the spread of an unsustainable mega-consumerist lifestyle. Shouldn’t climate change advice at least question the ecological appropriateness of the whole big box-in-the-middle-of-a-parking lot mode of development for the planet?
Likewise, his suggestion to “cool your roof,” like the parking lot idea, is unlikely to halt the rise of global CO2 levels. The main reason for lighter roofs is to cut air conditioning usage but, on a macro-economic scale, it could have the opposite effect on overall energy use if people and businesses invest their energy savings in additional production and consumption. Case in point: Wal-Mart has been painting its roofs light colors, and even installing solar panels on some of its super stores to save money on electricity, but its CO2 emissions are still going up. What gives? Well, it is a business model based on endless global growth, for one, and when it ships and sells more crap, its carbon footprint goes up.
But perhaps I’m being too hard on Mr. Scauzullo. Maybe his third suggestion to “drive an electric car” will be the mega-idea that really sets us on the road to the 80% reduction in overall global GHG emissions by 2050 that climate scientists think we’ll need to achieve to forestall catastrophic climate change.
Fossil fuels (i.e. gasoline) when burned produce more GHG than other fuels and much more than alternative fuels. For example, power plants running on natural gas produce half the amount of GHG than those burning coal. Also, in California, 33 percent of all power will be from alternative-energy very shortly. This means, by 2020, one third of all electric car drivers will produce zero GHG.
Ah, yes. EVs will save the planet. OK, I get that EVs produce less GHG per mile than gasoline-powered motor vehicles, but, like most arguments about EVs this one neither considers the scale of the automobile system nor its overall carbon footprint. Let’s understand this: understood as a complete system, there’s no such thing as a “zero GHG” automobile. No such thing as a “green car.”
Let’s just do a little back-of-the-napkin calculation, shall we? Now, let’s assume, as Scauzullo does, that we’re going to have wind/solar power for 33% of California’s energy supply by 2030. But what happens when tens of millions of California drivers switch to EVs (and let’s assume they drive the same mileage as they do now)? Let’s also assume many of California’s 6 million trucks and millions of buses also switch to electric power. The monumental increase in electricity demand from tens of millions of EVs might make California utilities happy, but it will also stretch the limits of even renewable resources at peak demand. The increased overall electricity demand could, I suppose, be met with nuclear power generation, but that has its own set of problems, and let’s not pretend it’s “green”.
EV proponents rarely step back and extrapolate the global energy demand of literally billions of EVs, either. Let’s consider what happens to global energy demand once the car culture spreads to China, India, and the rest of the world. Let’s not forget, under this expanding global consumerist future, humanity would still need to generate massive amounts of electricity to power industry, including a larger global automobile industry making EVs for the world’s billions of consumers. Recently, an energy analysis by the International Energy Agency concluded that global demand for electricity will rise faster than the growth of renewable energy. Thus, even with new renewable supplies the IEA concludes, global CO2 output is expected to rise by 20% by 2030, despite the fact that climate scientists say we need to reduce CO2 output by 80% by midcentury. Help me understand how the world’s 7-plus billion inhabitants driving EVs will square that circle. Maybe EV proponents assume the automobile lifestyle is ok for us (wink), but not for them.
Setting aside the inevitable traffic congestion that will come with an increase of motor vehicles on California’s roads (another thing EV-lovers don’t contend with), let’s think about the inefficiency of this mode of energy consumption. Because more than 90% of a motor vehicle’s power goes to moving the mass of the vehicle itself, not its passenger, any transportation system designed around the private automobile is an enormous waste of precious energy. Even if the energy is renewable, wouldn’t it be far wiser to use the megawatts for electric transit (buses, streetcars, LRT)?
The carbon footprint of an electric car is not merely that which it emits from the tailpipe, but the overall footprint of its production, use, and disposal. Calculate the global carbon footprint of the iron and other metal mines, lithium mines for billions of batteries, and, yes, the petroleum for the large quantity of plastics in each EV, and the other sites of resource extraction needed to produce raw materials for the manufacture of literally hundreds of millions—if not billions—of EVs annually. Next calculate the carbon footprint of the smelting, refining, and manufacturing operations necessary to make those billions of EVs, then the transportation of all of them to market, not to mention the exponential growth of the GHG-intensive concrete and asphalt industries to pave the way for the billions of EVs globally. I’m not even touching here the problem of toxic waste disposal of all those batteries when they need replacing. Bottom line: the amount of electricity and the resource extraction necessary for everyone in the US (let alone the globe as a whole) to continue the automobile-based lifestyle may very well negate the marginal short-term advantage of buying EVs. Look, I’m not saying gas guzzlers are better, I’m saying if we want to really tackle climate change, we’re going to have to move the conversation beyond cars, period.
We’re going to need to radically alter our lifestyle in the coming decades if we’re serious about tackling climate change, and sorry to tell you car-lovers, this will mean significantly shifting away from the automobile-based lifestyle. It doesn’t mean you have to go cold turkey from your car addiction, but you should see the EV as your transition, kind of like methadone for a heroin addict. It only works if you understand that our children’s children will eventually have to kick the entire habit to survive. On the plus side, you’ll begin to see that not only is life possible after car addiction, you’ll lose the nasty side effects (traffic, noise, sprawl, obesity, and 35,000 highway deaths annually). Will cars still be necessary for some things for a while? Of course. But a redesigned transportation system that focuses on moving people, not cars can eliminate the need for a car for many people, most of the time. Such change won’t happen immediately, but in the coming years we can begin a serious transition.
When more people start kicking the car habit, we can invest in our transit system so it becomes an even more attractive alternative for getting to work, school, and shopping. We can encourage businesses to locate near transit and access for bikes and pedestrians. Then we won’t need so many of those heat island parking lots. Maybe we can actually turn some of those empty Wal-Mart parking lots into beautiful community gardens.
We’ll also be healthier as people get out of their cars and walk or bike more, and, when we restripe more of our streets to accommodate bikes, pedestrians, and transit first (as many European countries are doing today), we’ll make our transportation system safer for everyone. The cost of doing so will be less than the cost of providing expensive EV-charging stations, and it will be more socially equitable, because people of modest income won’t be forced to spend the tens of thousands of dollars necessary on an EV in order to get to work or school. Best of all, we’ll be able to use the earth’s resources and that precious renewable wind and solar energy for things we really need.
We need journalists, teachers, ministers, and other community leaders to tell the truth about the significant changes in our lifestyle necessary to combat the globe’s rising GHG emissions. It’s doable, and actually less expensive than feeding an insatiable automobile habit. The good news is, it is not only cheaper, but more healthy than the car-based lifestyle. Sadly, many people—even liberal environmental journalists—may still be in denial.