Citizen Action Monitor

Electric vehicles will not help get us to zero carbon emissions — U of Toronto researcher explains

“What we should also be focused on is whether anyone should use a private vehicle at all.” —

No 2673 Posted by fw, October 22, 2020 —

Alexandre Milovanoff

“California recently announced that it plans to ban the sales of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, Ontario has invested $500 million in the production of electric vehicles (EVs) and Tesla is quickly becoming the world’s highest-valued car company. It almost seems like owning an electric vehicle is a silver bullet in the fight against climate change, but it isn’t. What we should also be focused on is whether anyone should use a private vehicle at all. … If we truly want to solve our climate problems, we need to deploy EVs along with other measures, such as public transit and active mobility. This fact is critical, especially given the recent decreases in public transit ridership in the U.S., mostly due to increasing vehicle ownership, low gasoline prices and the advent of ride-hailing (Uber, Lyft). Governments need to massively invest in public transit, cycling and walking infrastructure to make them larger, safer and more reliable. And we need to reassess our transportation needs and priorities.”Alexandre Milovanoff, The Conversation

Alexandre Milovanoff  is a postdoctoral researcher in Environmental Engineering at the University of Toronto.

On a personal note, two thoughts — First, I think the aggressive promotion of EVs comes with capitalism’s unrelenting drive to keep the economy growing, which, of course, increases carbon emissions and degrades the environment. Second, the risk of COVID-19 infection may make it increasingly difficult to get people to give up their cars for public transit, Uber, Lyft, and maybe even trains and planes. Moreover, medical science suggests the risk of some deadly form of viral infection may be here to stay.

Below is my slightly edited and abridged repost of Milovanoff’s article, featuring my added subheadings, selected bulleted reformatting, and text highlighting. To read the author’s original piece, click on the following linked title.

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The myth of electric cars: Why we also need to focus on buses and trains by Alexandre Milovanoff, The Conversation, October 21, 2020

Despite the aggressive promotion of electric cars, EVs will not help get us to zero carbon emissions

California recently announced that it plans to ban the sales of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, Ontario has invested $500 million in the production of electric vehicles (EVs) and Tesla is quickly becoming the world’s highest-valued car company. It almost seems like owning an electric vehicle is a silver bullet in the fight against climate change, but it isn’t. What we should also be focused on is whether anyone should use a private vehicle at all.

As a researcher in sustainable mobility, I know this answer is unsatisfying. But this is where my latest research has led.

[Reasons why EVs will not reduce carbon emissions]

  • Battery EVs, such as the Tesla Model 3 — the best selling EV in Canada in 2020 — have no tailpipe emissions. But they do have higher production and manufacturing emissions than conventional vehicles,
  • and often run on electricity that comes from fossil fuels. Almost 18 per cent of the electricity generated in Canada came from fossil fuels in 2019, ranging from zero in Québec to 90 per cent in Alberta.
  • Researchers like me compare the greenhouse gas emissions of an alternative vehicle, such as an EV, with those of a conventional vehicle over a vehicle lifetime, an exercise known as a life-cycle assessment. For example, a Tesla Model 3 compared with a Toyota Corolla can provide up to 75 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases emitted per kilometre travelled in Québec, but no reductions in Alberta.
  • I looked at the U.S. passenger vehicle fleet, which adds up to about 260 million vehicles, to answer a simple question: Could the greenhouse gas emissions from the sector be brought in line with climate targets by replacing gasoline-powered vehicles with EVs? The results were shocking. Assuming no changes to travel behaviours and a decarbonization of 80 per cent of electricity, meeting a 2 C target could require up to 300 million EVs, or 90 per cent of the projected U.S. fleet, by 2050. That would require all new purchased vehicles to be electric from 2035 onwards. To put that into perspective, there are currently 880,000 EVs in the U.S., or 0.3 per cent of the fleet. Even the most optimistic projections from the International Energy Agency suggest that the U.S. fleet will only be at about 50 per cent electrified by 2050.
  • Still, 90 per cent is theoretically possible, isn’t it? Probably, but is it desirable? In order to hit that target [of 90% of US fleet by 2050], we’d need to very rapidly overcome all the challenges associated with EV adoption, such as range anxiety, the higher purchase cost and availability of charging infrastructure.
  • A rapid pace of electrification would severely challenge the electricity infrastructure and the supply chain of many critical materials for the batteries, such as lithium, manganese and cobalt.
  • It would require vast capacity of renewable energy sources and transmission lines, widespread charging infrastructure, a co-ordination between two historically distinct sectors (electricity and transportation systems) and rapid innovations in electric battery technologies. I am not saying it’s impossible, but I believe it’s unlikely.

Do we need that many vehicles on the road?

So what? Shall we give up, accept our collective fate and stop our efforts at electrification? On the contrary, I think we should re-examine our priorities and dare to ask an even more critical question: Do we need that many vehicles on the road?

Buses, trains and bikes

Three ways to reduce passenger transport emissions

Simply put, there are three ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from passenger transport:

    • avoid the need to travel,
    • shift the transportation modes or
    • improve the technologies.

EVs only tackle one side of the problem, the technological one.

What if we shift the transportation modes to other forms of travel like buses, trains, bikes?

And while EVs do decrease emissions compared with conventional vehicles, we should be comparing them to buses, trains and bikes. When we do, their [EVs] potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions disappears because of their life cycle emissions and the limited number of people they carry at one time.

But use of public transit is falling because of increasing car ownership and low gas prices

If we truly want to solve our climate problems, we need to deploy EVs along with other measures, such as public transit and active mobility. This fact is critical, especially given the recent decreases in public transit ridership in the U.S., mostly due to increasing vehicle ownership, low gasoline prices and the advent of ride-hailing (Uber, Lyft).

The solution – Push governments to massively invest in public transit, cycling and walking

Governments need to massively invest in public transit, cycling and walking infrastructure to make them larger, safer and more reliable. And we need to reassess our transportation needs and priorities.

If people are serious about getting to zero carbon emissions, it’s time to speak up with action, not just words

The road to decarbonization is long and winding. But if we are willing to get out of our cars and take a shortcut through the forest, we might get there a lot faster.

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