Arguing against EVs is embarrassing

25th July 2023
erin_baker_headshot.jpg Erin Baker

Just how green are electric cars? Arguments about the 2030 deadline for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, the political hot potato of the ULEZ expansion in London and the looming ZEV (zero emission vehicle) mandate on car brands, which stipulates that 22 per cent of their range must be fully electric by next year (2024), have turbocharged discussions around the veracity of EVs’ environmental claims. Add into the mix the national press, with The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, and even Rowan Atkinson in The Guardian, questioning the size of electric cars’ carbon footprints, and everyone has something heated to say on the matter.


The grounding for the entire debate, however, is its backdrop, which surprisingly few people seem to inform themselves about before wading in, and the nature of which soon shows up the shrill voices as a thousand Neros, all fiddlers in a burning Rome.

In 2019, the human race unhelpfully dug out, scraped or mined more raw material from the earth than in all human history up to 1950, according to an episode of the excellent Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, called ‘Materials that Shape our World’. And this rate is not yet slowing. In no way, therefore, could we currently be considered a species that has put the brakes our voracious greed for making, consuming and throwing away stuff, let alone limited the damage or started the healing process. This is relevant for our discussion of just how green electric cars are, because, of course, every form of manufacture to involve mining continues this disaster.

We must acknowledge that electric cars are currently harmful for the planet (the fact that nobody in automotive talks about zero carbon production, but only net-zero carbon says it all - Polestar’s Project 0 is the one exception and even it doesn’t know if or when a zero-carbon production car is possible). EVs use rare earths, which are currently mined and processed largely in countries without huge supplies of renewable energy to power the mining, without embedded circular economies, with plenty of single-use plastics and diesel generators for employee use, wasteful mining processes that dig too deep and with no thought for conservation, and with questionable human rights.


EVs are manufactured in factories still powered in large part by fossil fuels, and transported around the world for sale by freight forwarders using diesel. They’re also very heavy thanks to their batteries, so contribute more to tyre wear and thus plastic particulates in the air and marine environments. There is no holistic process of battery recycling regulation across the board, and if the battery is damaged in a crash, it is mostly easier to scrap the vehicle. Most of the vegan interiors are made of non-biodegradable plastic, while leather sits burning in landfill, emitting methane.

So on one side of the debate, yes, it’s rubbish. A total pile of green-washing rubbish that diverts valuable time, attention and resources away from the development of hydrogen and e-fuels and better public transport networks.

But this is where we return to the context of the debate, the base line of the argument, which is the undeniable fact that the planet we live on is dying thanks to our continued plunder and destruction of its resources and bounty, and we have to act today. Look around you at the current solutions, and it's very clear that EVs, for all their woes, are the only viable game in town for the next 20 years.

Photo by Shen Chunchen/VCG via Getty Images

Photo by Shen Chunchen/VCG via Getty Images

The beauty of electric cars lies in two major facts: their lack of tailpipe emissions, and their potential, both in terms of future models and the locked-in potential in the EV you drive today. The first point is strangely now overlooked by cynics, and yet, in built-up areas, air pollution has, is and will continue to, cause chronic illness and deaths. A city in which we can breathe fresh air is the only viable city of the future: Public Health England says that air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK and estimates it is responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure, by exacerbating asthma and inducing coronary heart disease and lung cancer, among others.

The second point, the macro argument in favour of EVs, is their short- and long-term promise. Every day, every month and every year, EVs get greener. Their manufacture, transportation and power stems from a greater percentage of renewable energy almost daily, as the entire supply chain behind each car slowly turns away from fossil fuels to sustainable materials and energy, and nations’ grid supplies turn to wind and solar. In American states with low-carbon electricity supplies for charging cars, a recent report by the Fuels Institute (not biased) found that EVs can neutralise the emissions from their manufacture at 19,000 miles.

Yes, many parts of the supply chain are glacially slow to move, and promises of carbon neutrality by car brands in 2050 is just not good enough, but they are only moving in one direction. Petrol cars are not, by any definition, getting greener.

Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Look, too, at the very nature of a battery, versus petrol: one is a solid thing with an eight-year warranty, one is a liquid designed to be burned by the second. As Ed Conway, author of Material World and Economics and Data Editor at Sky News, said: "Unlike burning hydrocarbons, at least we are making something with batteries”, which means they have the potential to be recycled, or given a second life as power storage. And we will get better at doing both, partly because we all have a vested interest in slowing global warming, and partly because consumers demand of brands ever more responsible and transparent practice. Batteries are also far more efficient than internal combustion engines at using energy: nearly all the electricity in a battery goes into powering the vehicle, whereas up to 30 per cent of the energy inherent in fossil fuels moves the car, the rest being lost in heat and friction.

Demand for second-life batteries as storage units is also growing exponentially: by 2030, global battery capacity for grid storage could be at 680GWh, up from 16GWh at the end of 2021. Storage will be critical as we turn to renewables, with their intermittent sources. Currently, there’s little sign of a supply of second-life batteries, as drivers, squeezed by the cost of living, hold on to their ten-year-old EVs with their 80 per cent batteries. But as more electric cars reach the end of their drivable lives, the supply will grow.

And so it goes. Are we really still debating whether EVs are worth it, while Rome (or Rhodes) burns? It’s embarrassing, frankly.

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