As more and more electric cars such as those made by Tesla emerge on the roads, people wonder about their impact on the environment. Electric cars are often perceived as cars with zero-emissions or cars with little or no impact on the environment, but is that really the case? The answer really depends on who you ask.
When people argue that a certain technology or a process harms the environment, they externalize the problem. Instead of admitting humans could be the ones to blame, they shift the blame to something else or someone else. One alternative proposal is this: Cars don’t affect the environment, humans do. Therefore, a more appropriate question to ask might be: Does humans’ use of electric cars affect the environment?
So we need to link a technology’s, e.g. electric cars’ impact on the environment to the firms that build them and to the people who use them; again we need to make the human and not the technology accountable. In other words, any technology is simply a tool in the process — invented and directed by humans. When we discuss electric cars (a technology or a tool) and the environment, we need to consider human actions, inaction and interests. And when we do that, a human-environment-technology relationship presented below as a pyramid emerges. Humans are on the top of the pyramid affecting the environment and also creating, directing and using new technologies all the time; in my view, this relationship has existed since early humans invented primitive cutting tools, learned to create fire or made boats, chariots, etc. In this context, technology can be viewed as either helping or harming the environment. For example, clean and renewable energy technologies help the environment but technologies and techniques used to extract oil from oil sands deep below earth’s surface can harm the environment.
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).
Source: World Economic Forum
There’s evidence to support the effects of human actions on the environment although not everyone is convinced. Environmentalists list population growth, industrialization, increasing energy demand, fossil fuels usage, technologization of farming and agriculture, consumerism, global trade, military industrial complex, deforestation, and a global competition for market dominance as factors that harm the environment. As stated earlier, it’s not only human action; it’s also human inaction that’s also responsible for causing an environmental catastrophe: Some governments and large corporations recognize that their policies and operations, respectively damage the environment, but they take little or no action to change course. This is evident from the fact that some governments walk away from international treaties on environment — mostly on economic grounds.
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 growth of the financial market is another trend. Although there have been a few recessions, e.g. the Great Depression of 1929, the market crash of 1987 (Black Monday), the dotcom bubble of early 2000s and the global financial crisis of 2009, the financial market has been trending up — an indicator of economic growth as shown in graph below. The argument here is that market and economic growth (if we use the S&P 500 index performance as a benchmark) can’t be achieved without impacting the environment.
Let’s also look at the world population growth data shown below more closely. It’s estimated that the world population will be about 10 billion by 2050 (although this particular source estimates 9.7 billion). The good news is that although the numbers are increasing, the rate of growth has been decreasing, dropping by 0.8% between 1950 and 2020 and by an estimated 0.5% between 2020 and 2050. Also note the rapid increase of urbanization from 30% in 1950 to 56% in 2020 and to an estimated 68% in 2050. That’s a significantly disturbing trend for the environment. Urbanization clearly harms the environment. Likewise, look at the number of ‘megacities’ going from 1 to 33 and then to 48 in the span of a century. Urbanization and megacities clearly mean more demand and need for transportation. In summary, humans clearly have had a profound impact on the natural environment and continue to do so. But what’s been the impact on the environment? I’ll discuss that next.
Source: UN Population Division, UNHCR and UNRWA via Charmie, Yale University, 2020
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.
Environmentalists generally follow a leftist/liberal political ideology while those who disagree with the current portrayal and characterization of environmental degradation are mostly conservatives or right-wing. However, both ends of the political spectrum recognize the urgent need to protect the environment, they differ on how to do it. Even within liberals and conservatives’ ranks there are different and opposing views.
Broadly speaking, the liberals/leftists want more environmental regulation, more carbon tax while also opposing large energy exploration and delivery projects and any activity that in their view damages the environment. Conservatives who are strong advocates of the free market and a laissez faire economic system believe market efficiency is one answer to environmental issues. So they oppose regulation and too much government intervention and control. For example, the Canadian Conservative Party regard carbon tax as a tax grab and instead wants to focus on technology and going after big polluters rather than “commuters”. Also, Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord on economic grounds. Now, if you’re a liberal or a conservatives and you read all this and agree with most of what I’ve stated, that’s great. But if you say, “I’m a liberal or a conservative, and I don’t share these views on the environment”, you’d be right as well. And you’d agree that there’s no ‘universal’ liberal or conservative political views. A liberal or a conservative in the US would have radically different opinions and views than a liberal/conservative in Canada, Britain, Australia, Germany, Norway, Sweden, etc. Discussing liberal/conservative views of non-western societies is an entirely different discussion and it’s impossible to make even any remote comparisons with the views in the west.
The environmental factor includes the planet earth and its natural ecosystems: land, oceans, rivers, forests, glaciers, ozone layer, air, all species, biodiversity, wildlife, etc. Industrialization, technological development, rapid economic growth, militarization and global trade have left their marks on the environment. In the documentary A Life on Our Planet, renowned British broadcaster and natural historian argues, David Attenborough, 93 states, “Our planet is headed for disaster. We need to learn how to work with it rather than against it”. Some argue that indeed humans have worked against nature in the past century. Others would state that economic development was (and is) necessary to support a growing population. But increased carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere is a clear evidence of the negative impact of human actions on the environment. The graph below shows carbon dioxide emissions over almost 200 years (projected for 2020–2040) followed by another graph showing emissions from fossil fuels for 1900–2014.
Source: Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions
In a nutshell, all trends we’ve seen so far have been upward: population growth, urbanization, carbon dioxide emissions, effects of fossil fuels on carbon dioxide, etc. This is when there’s no political consensus on how to tackle environmental issues such as climate change and pollution.
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.
Although by the start of the 20th century a somewhat practical electric car was built, it didn’t lead to mass production because of limitations with the distance an electric car could travel, significant attention and research and development (R&D) in gasoline-powered cars and the misperception that there was an abundance of crude oil. The good news is that although electric cars took a backseat, they never left the race. When the end of World War II unleashed significant economic development and urbanization, people slowly started to pay attention to what human activity meant for the earth. Also, the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973 and the rise of environmentalists exerted pressure on the US to reduce its dependence on oil and protect the environment. But by then, the auto industry was well established in the US, Germany, Japan and many other nations competing for global market share and paying less attention to the effects of their manufacturing processes and the final product (cars) on the environment. The default framework for building a car was and still is one that’s meant for cars running on gas than electricity.
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.
Estimated worldwide automobile production from 2000 to 2019 (millions vehicles)
Source: Statista, 2020
There’s good news as EV sales have been increasing and although the total market share of EVs as a percentage of total car sales is very small, the trend is upward as shown in the table below. The expectation is that more and more countries will switch from traditional cars running on fossil fuel to ones running on batteries. But we can’t expect EVs to dominate the auto industry in coming years — the journey ahead is long.
Global electric-light-vehicle sales, % of total sales
Data source: McKinsey & Company 2020
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.
Does humans’ use of electric cars affect the environment?
To answer this question, I’ll discuss three broader potential impacts:
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.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), electricity generation from combustible fuels such as coal and coal products, oil and oil products, natural gas, and biofuels accounted for 66.3% of total world gross electricity production. The use of coal which significantly damages the environment accounted for 38% of the total energy source used to generate electricity. In the United States alone, 24% of electricity is generated with the use of coal.
Now, if we project that solar power and wind power will meet global electricity demands, that projection is unrealistic. In a journal article titled, “Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?, Richard York, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon states that renewable energy sources will modestly displace fossil fuels and argues that, “The common assumption that the expansion of production of alternative energy will suppress fossil-fuel energy production in equal proportion is clearly wrong”.
So while EVs can benefit the environment, the electricity needed to build EVs, batteries and charge them may offset any environmental benefits derived from EVs — unless electricity is generated through renewable energy sources.
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.
Cheap labour and cheap manufacturing offshore may benefit car manufacturers in rich countries, but the environment pays the price.
But here’s a bigger problem: EVs could be produced in countries with poor environmental records and then exported to other countries. Cheap labour and cheap manufacturing offshore may benefit car manufacturers in rich countries, but the environment pays the price. So we need to look at the impact of EVs end-to-end: The impact of sourcing parts (including mining, e.g., lithium), the manufacturing process itself, shipping and disposal of all EV parts including batteries. Fundamentally, there is no technology nor any known manufacturing process that doesn’t have a carbon footprint or that doesn’t undermine the environment. This is the technology factor, the EV. Now I want to put humans at the center of the conversation because as I’ve stated before, technology doesn’t affect the environment, people do.
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.
Also, the volume of human activity should either be altered or decreased across all sectors. Otherwise, we could have millions of cars logging billions of kilometers of trips with aggregate negative impact on the environment because the roads must still be maintained by asphalt (not good for the environment). But there will probably be more driving because people would think that they don’t pay for gas anymore. If that will turn out to be true and resulting in generating electricity through unsustainable sources, then technology (EVs) could become a risk rather than a protector to the environment.
Therefore, the technology (EV) will one day mature and could become the dominant technology of choice for people, but if EVs follow the footsteps of traditional cars, then as I stated before, it’s not the cars or the technologies that make them to blame, it would be us to take the blame — us the people. But I’m optimistic and envision that innovation will lead to efficiency across many sectors — including the transportation sector. Governments, businesses and consumers (collectively the human factor), must think and act in terms of sustainability than in terms of narrow self-interest.
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.
No doubt EVs are good for the environment, but that depends on understanding the end-to-end process of making, driving, maintaining and disposing of EVs: The entire process must leave the least possible carbon footprint. But most importantly, human use of EVs in terms of frequency and volume must be sustainable. If EVs become the dominant vehicles on the roads, without altering human activity, the total impact of all EVs globally could be as bad or worse than using traditional vehicles. Also, it won’t make sense to have low-emission cars, but high-emission factories and excessive car usage globally.
Regulation is imperfect and there is no such thing as a perfectly-efficient free market.
We also need to achieve a minimal political consensus on the remedies for environmental issues. This is hard. And it requires concessions from those on the left and on the right. Too much environmental regulation can impede innovation and an unchecked free market can lead to unethical and illegal practices — thus undermining the environment and nature. Regulation is imperfect and there is no such thing as a perfectly-efficient free market. The free market held accountable through reasonable, specific, measurable, achievable and realistic control mechanisms can provide an alternative. There are many stakeholders and we need to consider the interests of all — rather than tilting policies, operations, strategies and our practices purely on self-interests at the expense of everyone else.
Technologies such as EVs provide the vehicle to reach our goals. But ultimately, people are accountable to the environment and to the future generations. If humans claim to be the most intelligent species, then intelligent species shouldn’t destroy their own home — knowingly.
Sources and further reading
McKinsey Electric Vehicle Index: Europe cushions a global plunge in EV sales
McKinsey's proprietary Electric Vehicle Index (EVI) assesses the dynamics of the e-mobility market in 15 key countries…
Car production: Number of cars produced worldwide 2018 | Statista
In 2019, almost 92 million motor vehicles were produced worldwide. This figure translates into a decline of around 5…
IEA (2020), Electric Vehicles, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/electric-vehicles
Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data | US EPA
At the global scale, the key greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are: : Fossil fuel use is the primary source…
Čeřovský Zdeněk and Mindl Pavel. Electric, Hybrid Electric and Combustion Engine Driven Cars and their Impact on Environment
World Population: 2020 Overview
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S&P 500 Index - 90 Year Historical Chart
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A Real Plan to Protect Our Environment
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These 12 charts show how the world's population has exploded in the last 200 years
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Electricity Information 2019 - Analysis - IEA
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)
In 2019, about 4,118 billion kilowatthours (kWh) (or about 4.12 trillion kWh) of electricity were generated at…
Climate Change and Sustainable Transport
Climate change is at the top of UN priorities and has become a challenge for many organizations and fora dealing with…
Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?
Analysts implicitly assume that increasing renewable-energy generation by one unit displaces conventional energy by…