Questioning Blind EV Advocacy
The environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles often outweighs the benefits of forgoing fossil fuels.
Governor Gavin Newsom recently ordered the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to ban the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. Since the 1990s, 16 states have adopted CARB’s more stringent emission standards in place of federal regulations enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Newsom’s mandatory transition to zero emission vehicles will thus have a domino effect in the CARB states (including small, rural Vermont), which will be legally bound to outlaw the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles.
Battery-run electric vehicles are the most advanced zero emission vehicle technology in the market. Californians buy around 50 percent of electric vehicles sold in the nation, with Tesla accounting for 75 percent of those sales. Owning an electric vehicle has become an identity marker of anti-fossil fuel climate activism. However, assigning values to engines—“electric good, internal combustion bad”—shields the complex, real world system of electric vehicle technology from much needed scrutiny.
The most common electric vehicle batteries are composed of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese. Cobalt and lithium mining, in particular, are implicated in human rights abuses, child labor, ecosystem destruction, and pollution in Congo, South America, and China.
In 2016, investigations by Amnesty International and the Washington Post revealed that at least 100,000 and up to 150,000 miners in Congo, including 40,000 children (some as young as six years), use their hands and basic tools to dig hundreds of feet underground in search of cobalt-rich rocks. Absent oversight or safety measures, deaths, injuries, respiratory diseases, and birth defects caused by exposure to high levels of toxicity are commonplace. A report by the U.K. nonprofit organization Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) details the daily racism, physical violence, and verbal abuse endured by Congolese miners working for Chinese-owned companies and subcontractors.
Lithium mining in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia is resource and energy intensive (one ton of lithium requires 500,000 gallons of water) and similarly rife with social and environmental devastation. Nevertheless, local farmers (forced to import water from other areas), indigenous communities, regional wildlife and vegetation, and soil, air, and water quality are sacrificed on the altar of “green” technology.
Lithium is toxic, flammable, and highly reactive, which creates challenges for safe disposal. Dead electric vehicle batteries cannot be dumped in landfills but they are not designed to be recycled, either. Less than 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled today (in comparison, 100 percent of the lead in lead-acid car batteries is recycled). The hazards of electric vehicle batteries extend from cradle to grave. Yet, climate catastrophists—who decry the extraction and use of fossil fuels as exploitative—turn a blind eye to the electric vehicle-related horrific abuse of humans and the environment.
To what end are we impoverishing societies and ecosystems in multiple continents? Do electric vehicles sizably lower carbon emissions? No, the reduction is minimal because every stage of an electric vehicle’s life cycle requires fossil fuels.
First, mining equipment, materials processing facilities, and factories that produce lithium-ion batteries run on “dirty” fossil fuels. Chinese companies (led by CATL) dominate the world’s electric vehicle battery production, and all Chinese factories run on coal. China is the largest producer of coal and largest consumer of coal-derived electricity, burning 4.4 billion tons of coal annually. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) confirms the enormous carbon footprint of electric vehicles. An extensive literature review published by ICCT in 2018 found that manufacturing electric vehicles uses more energy and produces more carbon emissions than making internal combustion engine vehicles.
Second, electric vehicles run on electricity that is predominantly produced and distributed using fossil fuels. A 2019 MIT Energy Initiative study acknowledged that an electric vehicle “operating on carbon-intensive electricity will have higher emissions than a gasoline-powered vehicle.” Some 61 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum), 19 percent by nuclear energy, 12 percent by wind and solar, and the rest by hydropower, biomass, and geothermal sources. Taking into account the carbon-intensive electric vehicle battery production and fueling, Danish environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg calculated, “Over its first 60,000 kilometres, a long-range electric car will emit more carbon dioxide than a gas car.”
We are assured by politicians and experts that electric vehicle emissions will decline as global electric grids decarbonize. It is unfair to demand and naive to expect that China, India, and developing African countries will renounce fossil fuels—the very sources of reliable, cheap, and abundant energy that built and continue to power the First World.
The average retail price of an electric vehicle is $56,437 (2021 Kelley Blue Book estimate), which is equivalent to an entry-level luxury car such as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3 Series, or Jaguar XE. Public electric vehicle charging stations impose per kilowatt-hour (kWh) rates that are two to three times that of residential electric power costs. And unlike gas stations, they are not omnipresent.
Electric vehicle buyers are thus advised to install an at-home charging station. A Level 1 charger is insufficient for long commutes. Installing a Level 2 charger for two cars with a 240-volt outlet (that necessitates home renovation for a circuit panel upgrade) costs on average between $2,370 and $6,700. A 2021 analysis by the Anderson Economic Group compared the cost of fueling electric vehicles and ICE vehicles in the entry-level, mid-priced, and luxury segments. The authors found that “electric vehicles often cost more to fuel than similar ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicles.”
A Nature Energy article (2021) by researchers at the University of California Davis showed that 18 percent of electric vehicle owners (and 20 percent of hybrid electric vehicle owners) in California switched to ICE vehicles largely because of the high cost and inaccessibility of charging. Over 70 percent of those who replaced their electric vehicles with gas powered vehicles did not have Level 2 charging at home. Other reasons for discontinuance were limited driving range and not having more than two cars per household.
Between 2018 and 2022, the U.S. government gave $7.5 billion in tax credits to electric vehicle buyers—half of which was claimed by corporations. According to the Congressional Research Service, 78 percent of Americans who claimed the federal electric vehicle tax credit earned $100,000 or more, while 7 percent had an income of over $1 million. Another study demonstrated that most people who took advantage of the tax break would have bought an electric vehicle without it. By forcing middle class workers and families to pay for wealthy people’s vehicles, this electric vehicle promotion policy deepens socioeconomic inequality.
Likewise, promoting electric vehicles by banning internal combustion engine vehicles—the principal transportation technology—will directly and indirectly hurt middle class and low income Americans. Consider how automobile manufacturers will react to Newsom’s blanket ban. They will hike prices to fund the speedy and wholesale replacement of their gas powered vehicles with electric vehicles. Higher prices for new cars will translate into higher prices for used cars. Instead of propping up lithium battery-operated electric vehicles with subsidies and adoption mandates, policymakers should support innovation that would allow new, superior, and competitive zero emission vehicle technologies to emerge.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy examined how the mass adoption of electric vehicles would impact the demand for electricity. The report predicts that U.S. electricity consumption will increase by 20 percent and 38 percent respectively in the medium-adoption and high-adoption scenarios for 2050. Power grids can handle such substantial increases in demand only if the electricity is produced by reliable energy sources—not intermittent ones like wind and solar. As the percentage of unreliable sources such as wind and solar in domestic electricity generation has grown, due to government mandates and subsidies, so has the incidence of grid failures, blackouts, and energy poverty.
Like fossil fuels, nuclear energy is reliable, abundant, cheap, and scalable; unlike fossil fuels, it is carbon free. There is no path to a stable, decarbonized electric grid without nuclear energy but environmentalists criminalized it long ago. Shutting down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in 2014 created a “hole,” to quote the Boston Globe, that will “haunt the New England energy grid for decades.” In the aftermath, Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions have drastically increased. Before politicians attempt to electrify transportation, they need to build resilient energy infrastructures across the nation.
Finally, China’s dominance in the electric vehicle industry raises pressing concerns about raw material trade flows and the risks to the associated supply chains. Chinese authorities are notorious for human rights and environmental abuses, and have been maneuvering to destabilize U.S. hegemony as they devise a new Sino-centric world order. Will electrifying our transportation sector make us vulnerable to Chinese caprice and corruption?
The widescale adoption of electric vehicles stands to make American energy security more precarious—unless current policies change. Dismissing the many complex factors that shape the electric vehicle industry render discussion of it hollow.
Meg Hansen is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a policy research and educational nonprofit organization in Vermont.