Electric Cars Impact on the Environment

Credit: McKinsey & Company

The Human Factor

The human factors involve any action or inaction that either damages or protects the environment. It covers human population growth, economic expansion, commercial activity, consumerism, perceptions, beliefs and knowledge about the natural environment. It also includes human inaction and indifference as they witness environmental degradation but do very little to minimize the damage . In a nutshell, many believe and there is data that shows that human activity is largely responsible for today’s environmental degradation. Humans’ impact on the environment isn’t something new, but the rate and intensity at which the environment is being degraded through human activity has accelerated. The primary driver accelerating environmental degradation is increasing population — as shown in graph below showing global population growth for the last 100 years (1820–2019).

Carbon Dioxide from Hell?

We can’t discuss environmental degradation without talking about carbon and carbon dioxide. As the world population increases so do the CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels in the atmosphere. Some may argue that just because two trends are related, it doesn’t mean one causes the other, i.e. correlation doesn’t mean causation. But there are many other trends. For example, the graph below shows carbon emissions from fossil fuels for the past 115 years (also noting that fossil fuels aren’t alone to be blamed for carbon emissions).

The Environment Factor

First, I must state that any discussion of the environment is a divisive political debate because there are many opposing views. A person’s viewpoint on the environment is deeply rooted in his/her political and ideological belief system. Although there’s a scientific consensus on climate change and the consequences of our inaction, there’s no political consensus on the remedies. Political divisions exist within each country and among states: states also externalize the problem: the blame must go to any other country but mine — political leaders argue. The division about climate change is here to stay — but people are starting to realize that the status quo is no longer acceptable in how we ‘expend’ the planet earth.

The Technology Factor

Technology can be either a tool or a process. Technology is a double-edged sword as it can do both good and harm. Nuclear technology was used to kill approximately 229,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, but nuclear technology is also being used in medicine and to generate electricity. Likewise, technology can either play a positive or a negative role when it comes to its impact on the environment. The Industrial Revolution that accelerated the development of various technologies also accelerated the process to damage the environment. The building of trains, railway roads, highways and cars and the industrialization of agriculture among other things led to robust economic development but at a cost to the environment.

Electric Cars: Brief History

This generation didn’t invent the electric car. The technology has existed ever since traditional cars commonly referred to as Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) were invented. There’s no single person regarded as the inventor of the electric car, but a few individuals have played a pivotal role. It’s widely believed that Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in 1829–1832, US inventors Thomas Davenport in 1835 and William Morrison in 1891 played critical roles that led to building the first practical electric car in the late 19th century. French physicist Gaston Planté and another French chemical engineer named Camille Faure helped with inventing and developing lead-acid batteries used in cars.

Electric Car Industry Today

Electric cars are slowly appearing on roads in many countries. Although their growth rate has been slow, the trend is upward indicating that consumer demand and confidence are getting stronger. But before we look at electric car sales and production, it is useful to get a sense of current car production levels. In 2019, approximately 92 million cars were produced globally based on data from Statisista. It’s expected that car production in 2020 would be lower due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to stop and think. We need to pay close attention to the slope of the graph below showing worldwide automobile production (in this case steepness of the line). That’s worrisome from an environmental standpoint. More cars simply means more damage to the environment, although transportation is not the only sector responsible for degrading the environment. The rate at which car production has been growing is unsustainable in the long-run which is why there is a push for more environmentally friendly cars such as EVs.

Electric Cars and the Environment: Putting it All Together

I started the discussion stating that electric cars aren’t a new invention and argued that we need to make humans the centre of discussion in the contexts of technology and environment. I also showed that human action and human inaction have clearly led to environmental damage. I defined technology as a double-edged sword because depending on how it’s used it can either help or harm the environment. I presented the human-technology-environment pyramid placing humans on top of the pyramid and affecting the environment through technology (although technology isn’t the only way to affect the environment). I then discussed the slow, but increasing market penetration of electric cars (EVs). I now want to answer the question that I set out to answer: Does humans’ use of electric cars affect the environment? This is a more accurate question than simply asking if EV’s help or harm the environment. Again, technologies don’t help/harm the environment, humans do.

A. The Impact of Electricity Generation

We first need to understand the implications of electricity as it relates to EVs. Electric cars must be regularly charged and if EVs were to dominate the automobile industry one day, we need to consider the effects of electricity generation on the environment. The transition from cars running on gas (petrol, diesel) to cars running on battery will mean we must generate massive electricity to be able to run factories to produce electric cars, batteries and constantly charge them. This won’t be an easy transition because there’s a massive global dependence on oil and fierce political disagreements.

B. The Impact of Manufacturing, Battery Production and Disposal

According to the UN, the CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions in the transport sector are about 30% for developed countries and 23% in the case of the total man-made CO2 emissions worldwide. Building a car requires significant use of natural resources and thus a tax on the environment. Although they’re electric cars, we still need carbon steel, aluminium and many other raw materials. Also, manufacturing batteries and then disposing of them after their lifetime and/or degradation can have implications for the environment. Think about tens of millions of EVs and batteries being produced, shipped across the globe and then disposed of. The manufacturing process of batteries and the use of natural resources (lithium in particular) can negatively affect the environment.

C. The Impact of EV Driving Volume by People

We could have the most efficient vehicles on the planet, but if there’s excessive use on a global scale, then the environment will still suffer. So even if one day the majority of cars in the world were EVs, that doesn’t mean we’ve overcome environmental issues. The transportation sector alone can’t be held accountable for damaging the environment and causing pollution. To protect the environment, all sectors and industries must take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. Climate change and pollution affect us collectively and it’s common sense we collectively tackle it; there can’t be any free riders. For example, it would be pointless if all cars in a particular country are electric, but the factories, trucks, buses and trains run on fossil fuels.

Conclusion

EVs provide a safe exit path from our dependence on fossil fuels that has proved to be an unbearable burden on the environment and the ecosystems. The transition from traditional vehicles Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) will be long and it will probably take decades before adoption by larger market segments take place. Although developed countries and some developing countries will transition to EVs faster (Norway is a pioneer), there will be many countries where lack of infrastructure (electricity and charging stations) will be a huge barrier for adoption. The hope is that the market will offer innovative and cheaper solutions that these countries can utilize without significant capital investment and infrastructure development.

Sources and further reading

Timeline: History of the Electric Car

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Salam Nahzat

Salam Nahzat

MBA (MTI), Professional Masters Diploma (Security), CEH, Bachelor of Business Mgmt, BA (Social Science). Interests: AI, security, cryptocurrency, emerging tech.