For a species heading toward eventual planetary self-destruction at the hands of climate change, we sure love to drag our feet when it comes to stopping this cataclysmic collision course unless some attractive gimmick is involved. Past examples include the Tron-inspired solar-powered roadways (Clean Energy Authority, “What’s Happening with Solar Roads?” 01.16.2018) and futuristic artificial trees that suck up carbon dioxide (The Guardian, “Could artificial trees be part of the climate change solution?” 01.12.2016), although both of them have reached dead ends in the context of reality.
This time, it seems that the production of electric cars has grabbed everyone’s attention as the sleek and stylish solution that will save the Earth. Yet, unlike previous efforts, the idea of an electric car has captivated people for more than 100 years. In fact, electric cars made up about one-third of all vehicles on U.S. roads by 1900, enjoying immense popularity for almost two decades until Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T effectively incapacitated the electric car industry in 1908 (U.S. Department of Energy, “The History of the Electric Car,” 09.15.2014).
Today, electric cars have returned as a symbol of a greener future, as if directly opposing the gas-guzzling automobiles that represent our society’s current fossil fuel crisis. Recently, Australia announced a $6 million investment towards building electric vehicle charging stations (Phys.org, “The new electric vehicle highway is a welcome gear shift, but other countries are still streets ahead,” 10.30.2018), and China has overtaken every other country in the world as the largest international market for electric cars (CNN, “China is crushing Europe’s electric car dreams,” 10.30.2018). In addition, like well-oiled clockwork, the Trump administration has responded to this green energy initiative by doing everything in its power to obstruct it, such as killing California’s mandate requiring car companies to build electric cars and other zero-emission vehicles (McClatchy DC, “Trump’s challenge of California’s emissions rules could zap its electric car industry,” 08.02.2018).
However, Trump’s anti-environment rhetoric only seems to fuel the public’s worship of electric cars. During his presidency, Tesla sales have spiked from 25,051 vehicles to 83,500 vehicles, amounting to a ridiculous 233 percent growth rate in just two years. This makes Tesla, an electric car, the fourth best selling car in the United States (Clean Technica, “25,913% Growth In Tesla Sales In 6 Years,” 10.04.2018). And when it comes to electric cars, no other automotive company has developed an Apple-esque cult of personality quite like Tesla Motors, the beloved brainchild of billionaire business magnate Elon Musk, who treats every showing of the latest sexy Tesla model like an extravagant rock concert.
Of course, the extreme enthusiasm that Musk and his fanbase express for their electric car makes sense. Multiple studies have shown that electric cars demonstrate more energy efficiency than gasoline-powered cars, which helps reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions entering the atmosphere. In fact, it takes a petroleum car 142 megajoules of energy to travel 100km, whereas an electric car requires 38 megajoules to travel the same distance (The Guardian, “How green are electric cars?” 12.21.2017).
“For the US overall, an electric vehicle is much cleaner than a gasoline vehicle, even when you take into account the emissions from natural gas, coal, or however else you’re generating the electricity,” stated senior engineer Dave Reichmuth from the nonprofit science advocacy organization Union of Concerned Scientists (Wired, “Even More Evidence That Electric Cars Could Save the Planet,” 03.15.2018).
But while electric cars definitely have their advantages over conventional gasoline-powered automobiles, we must not overlook the fact that they also come with their own set of problems. For instance, fuel efficiency on the road is only half the battle in the struggle for environmental sustainability. On average, the emissions released from the manufacturing process can be four times higher than the amount produced through tailpipe emissions (The Guardian, What’s the carbon footprint of…a new car?” 09.23.2010). In other words, reducing a car’s carbon footprint through increased fuel efficiency means nothing if building the car itself involves significantly more harm to the environment.
Unfortunately, manufacturing an electric car may pose a greater environmental risk than building a gasoline vehicle. The 2015 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists states, “Manufacturing a mid-sized [electric vehicle (EV)] with an 84-mile range results in about 15 percent more emissions than manufacturing an equivalent gasoline vehicle. For larger, longer-range EVs that travel more than 250 miles per charge, the manufacturing emissions can be as much as 68 percent higher” (Union of Concerned Scientists, “Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave,” 11.2015).
The biggest issue with the electric car pertains to its lithium-ion battery, the central power source of the automobile. In order to create these large, bulky lithium batteries, manufacturers need large supplies of lithium, an expensive and rare metal that exists in tiny quantities (Autoevolution, “Six Problems With Electric Cars That Nobody Talks About,” 11.06.2017).
Other extremely rare earth minerals include dysprosium, lanthanum, neodymium and praseodymium, most of which (around 99 percent) are wasted upon extraction due to contamination from the toxic mining process (Wired, “Tesla’s Electric Cars Aren’t As Green As You Might Think,” 03.31.2016; Autoevolution). This means battery recycling plays a critical role in making sure that the remaining useable rare metals are expended as efficiently as possible, which comes in direct conflict with the fact that there is still no environmentally safe way to recycle lithium-ion batteries (The Conversation, “Not so fast: why the electric vehicle revolution will bring problems of its own,” 04.16.2018).
Most importantly, our electric cars are only as green as our energy grid. If electricity in the United States relies on high-emission petroleum or coal, then all of the positive environmental impacts brought upon by all those fancy Tesla cars will amount to minimal progress at best (Scientific American, “Electric Cars Are Not Necessarily Clean,” 05.11.2016).
It is easy to be swept away by the hype surrounding the latest sexy, cutting-edge technology that markets itself as the next global solution to climate change. Tesla may promote itself as the vehicle that will save the future, but we cannot simply buy ourselves out of the hole we dug ourselves in. In fact, it’s the opposite: We need to reduce all forms of consumption from electricity to consumer goods for effective change to occur. If we want real progress, we must resist the temptation to find indulgent shortcuts and acknowledge the hard truth that we need to turn to all options, even unappealing ones, in order to approach a monumental dilemma like climate change.