Electric Vehicles Won’t Save Us - Marker

Why EV’s are false prophets in the fight for a better world Coby Lefkowitz

Few narratives in the last decade have generated as much momentum as that of electric vehicles. They’ve been heralded as a revolution. Saviors to our gasoline addiction and warriors in the fight for a more sustainable world. Federal departments have noted they have the potential to dramatically improve public health and reduce ecological damage. Financial observers have christened EVs as the next frontier for outsized opportunity and returns. To be seen in one is the ultimate status symbol, signifying that you’re not only someone, but someone who cares about the world, and how the world thinks of you. And that’s something.

Pledges have been made, billions have been allocated from legacy manufacturers, and dozens of startups have been launched with the aim of capturing billions more. It seems that widespread adoption of electric vehicles is all but an inevitability. As we move toward this future, then, it’s important to consider the implications this has, and whether or not leaning so blindly into electric vehicles is really a good thing.

This isn’t a story about Elon Musk, or Tesla, or a contrarian take about how “oil is good, actually.” I unconditionally support electric vehicles in their quest to take over the primacy of gasoline-powered vehicles in the market. But I don’t save that enthusiasm for their prospects on society broadly. From the perspective of the built environment, there is nothing functionally different between an electric vehicle and a gasoline propelled one. The relationship is the same, and it’s unequivocally destructive. Cars, however they’re powered, are environmentally cataclysmic, break the tethers of community, and force an infrastructure of dependency that is as financially ruinous to our country as it is dangerous to us as people. In order to build a more sustainable future and a better world for humanity, we need to address the root problems that have brought us to where we so perilously lie today.

Gasoline-Powered v. Electric Vehicles: The False Fight

Electric vehicles are undeniably superior to their gasoline-powered cousins when considering their emissions impact. EVs have been found to emit almost three times less carbon dioxide during their lifecycle than regular cars (~4,100 lbs of CO2 v. ~11,500 lbs), with further gains in areas with heavier shares of power coming from renewable resources, like California. This is important in reducing our national carbon footprint, for which transportation makes up 29% of all emissions. Within transportation, 60% of US emissions come from private vehicles that aren’t medium & heavy duty trucks, and more than 80% when factoring in the trucks. Certainly, electric vehicles can meaningfully reduce our emissions through capturing a higher share of the market.

While there are qualifiers as to just how clean (and ethical) the production of electric vehicles is, net-net, they are still far better for the environment gasoline-powered cars. Optimistically, EV capture of the total auto market share is trending in the right direction. 3.2% of all cars sold globally in 2020 were electric (2.3 million total cars). The market could reach 145 million vehicles by 2030, and potentially upwards 1/3 of all car sales.

Global electric car sales by global markets, 2010–2020. Source: International Energy Agency

But just as the total market for electric vehicles is growing, so too is the total market for cars. By 2035, nearly 2 billion cars will be on roads around the world. This presents significant challenges. In 2010, 14% of the world’s emissions came from transportation. Total emissions have continued to rise in the last decade, with transportation’s share increasing commensurately. This is important because if we want to limit global warming to the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees, we’ll have to reduce total emissions by 55% by 2030. If we don’t, we’re on track to see global temperatures rise at least 2 degrees or more, on average. While a world 1.5 degrees warmer is still an existential threat for many, scientists warn that any greater increase could present irreversible change and unimaginably horrific consequences, like mass water shortages, famines, more intense natural disasters, and political instability among other horrors. Unfortunately, time is against us. Our window of opportunity may only be as short as this decade, the 2020’s.

Even if every single car were electric by 2030, and all production was carbon neutral (which isn’t possible), we would only reduce global emissions somewhere between 15–20% — far short of the estimated 55% we need to cut. While the reduction would be greater in the U.S. as transportation comprises a higher proportion of our emissions than at a global level, it still isn’t enough. Carbon emissions care little for international borders.

Coverage of EVs often frames the discussion of sustainability exclusively as electric cars versus gasoline powered cars, but this isn’t the dichotomy to analyze. Instead, we must look to carbon-intensive development patterns versus sustainable development patterns. This distinction is key, as development patterns not only include the total emissions impact of cars, but also that of new construction, existing buildings, infrastructure development, and subsequent deforestation and propagation of carbon intensive lifestyles. All told, property operations and construction account for nearly 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions. When combined with transportation emissions (which dictate or depend on our development patterns), the total impact of our built environment stretches far beyond the 55% reduction threshold. Indeed, it’s been estimated that metropolitan regions alone account for 70% of total energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

The challenge we’re faced with is clear: We not only have to transition to cleaner vehicles, but we have to transition toward cleaner built environments, generally. Simply transitioning to electric vehicles does nothing to address the underlying cause for our unsustainable living patterns in which private vehicles are the default mode of moving from place to place. Enough false dichotomies, let’s get to the real challenge.

Cars v. The Environment: The Real Fight

Cars need roads to drive on. This much is obvious. But what’s less obvious is the extent to which roads (and cars) dictate how our built environment is constructed. In short, we’ve created a world that’s built around cars first, with people, the environment, natural wildlife, the atmosphere, and practically everything else second. In deciding to build for cars first, we’ve forfeited much of our urban areas to them. Through streets, interchanges, parking lots, and other infrastructure, it’s not uncommon for American downtowns to allocate 50% or more of their land to cars. Even Washington, a place many consider walkable and “people-first,” dedicates more than 40% of its land to cars. That’s land that could otherwise be housing, parks, cultural venues, or practically anything else but car space (which is agnostic to power source).

Paved areas dedicated to cars absorb heat. According to research from Climate Central, daytime temperatures can be 15 to 27 degrees warmer in cities than in surrounding rural areas due to heat absorption. This effect is exaggerated by the destruction of vegetation (for car-space) that provides natural cooling through evapotranspiration. This whole process is known as the urban heat island effect. It can have devastating impacts, from increasing heat related deaths (which totaled 10,500 deaths in the U.S. from 2004–2018), to heightening the impacts of climate change through increased energy consumption (i.e., air conditioners on max power for days at a time).

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