The future is green and carbon neutral. It looks like the automotive industry is finally succumbing to this fact.
General Motors announced that it would sell only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035. All the big automakers are trying to figure out how to make the leap to EV’s before Tesla and other start-ups lure away drivers. Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and several other big automakers said in February they would no longer try to block California from setting its own strict fuel-economy standards.
And, President Joe Biden announced that he is working to replace the government’s entire fleet of 645,000 cars and trucks with electric vehicles assembled in the U.S.
But Biden’s announcement has been met with some criticism from across the political spectrum. Broadly, concerns include the large upfront monetary cost of such a transformation, and the environmental and ethical costs of manufacturing so many EVs.
The monetary cost
It is not yet clear what precisely Biden means by “electric vehicle.” Does his plan include, for instance, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which use a combination of EV motors and traditional internal combustion engines? The President hasn’t specified yet.
What we do know is that whatever kind Biden’s EVs turn out to be, they’re going to be costlier than the regular fossil-fuel based vehicles. On average, an EV meant for consumers has a $19,000 higher sticker price per unit than the regular car. While the federal government will of course be able to purchase its fleet at a lower price differential, Biden’s overall plan will come at a hefty price tag.
The higher upfront cost is worth it, though, because an EV is much cheaper over its lifetime than its gas-powered counterpart. According to new research published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lower maintenance costs and the lower costs of charging for electric cars compared with gasoline prices tend to offset the higher upfront price over time.
(By the way, there are already 10 completely electric vehicles in the market that cost less than the average new car in the US.)
This is not to mention that Biden’s plan does much more than simply electrify the federal fleet. Biden is trying to address the core cause of high EV prices by incentivising the reluctant automotive industry in the US to make green cars mainstream. EVs cost more not because its base components cost more, but because the industry has not invested in the infrastructure needed to mass-produce electric vehicles. Placing an order for more than half a million electric vehicles for the federal fleet, Biden hopes, will spur car manufacturing companies to make that investment.
The environmental cost
Producing so many vehicles for the federal fleet will cost money. But it will also be a drain on the environment. Extracting rare earth elements like lithium, nickel, cobalt or graphite – all needed for the EV battery – involves mining processes that do pollute the ground and atmosphere. For instance, the extraction of one ton of rare earth elements produces 75 tons of acid waste (that isn’t always handled in an eco-friendly way) and one tone of radioactive residue, according to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths.
Think tanks like the Manhattan Institute have also published articles like this, that elaborate on the cost of green energy.
But we have to put all of this in perspective. The cost of extracting (sometimes by fracking) and burning fossil fuels far exceeds the cost of mining the resources needed for EVs.
Dr. Jessika Trancik, an associate professor of energy studies at MIT, estimates that an electric vehicle’s production emissions would be offset in anywhere from six to 18 months, depending on how clean the energy grid is where the car is charging.
The average shelf life of a new vehicle is approximately eight years, or 96 months, which would amount to a significantly reduced carbon footprint for Biden’s new EVs over their lifetime.
There is no doubt in the scientific community – electric vehicles are greener, and by a lot.
The ethical cost
EVs may indeed be better for our environment, but they come at a heavy and undeniable human cost.
Amnesty International’s research has shown that cobalt mined by children and adults in extremely hazardous conditions could be entering the supply chains of some of the world’s largest carmakers.
Currently, more than half of the world’s cobalt – necessary for the batteries in EVs – is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Government officials told TIME Magazine that 20% of the cobalt exported from the DRC comes from unregulated mines where Congolese men, women and children as young as 7 years old are employed. None of the employees wear face masks that would prevent them from inhaling extremely toxic cobalt dust.
But, for the sake of our environment, we need the EVs. There doesn’t seem to be an argument that we should abandon an environmental project of this scale because companies are refusing to comply with labour regulations and ethical guidelines. By all means, propose and pass legislation that would force EV-manufacturing companies to more ethically source their minerals. But let’s not hesitate to avert this climate crisis in that effort.
Do you think electric vehicles are worth it? Is Biden’s plan a good one? Let us know in the comments below!