It is not news that the environment is in crisis. The Potomac River is full of mercury, extreme weather events are becoming commonplace, and global mean temperatures are on the rise. Suffice it to say, the situation is not ideal.
Several people in positions of power are aware of the problem, and have begun acting to solve the issue. Unfortunately, the solution they keep defaulting to is impractical at best, and harmful at worst.
Across the globe, politicians have made vows to increase sales of electric cars. Several nations have recently vowed to ban sale of fossil fuel-powered cars within 20 years. Countries like Finland, Sweden and Austria will sell only electric cars by 2040. Canada plans to implement this policy in 2035. The United Kingdom and Netherlands in 2030. Norway will put their mandate into effect in 2025 – only three short years away. Twelve U.S. states also have similar plans in effect, including California and Maryland.
However, these politicians seem to be forgetting one key issue: electric cars have their own fair share of problems.
There are a few that anyone familiar with the issue even on a surface level should know. These are the main points that any commonplace critic of electric cars will default to, infrastructure and range. While EV charging stations have become more common over the past decade, they still aren’t nearly as common as gas stations, especially in more rural areas, and even if you can find one, charging is still slow. The other widely known issue is range. This has also improved to a degree, but combined with the lack of charging stations in certain areas, an electric vehicle isn’t feasible for traveling long distances, such as across the U.S.
While these are legitimate concerns, they aren’t the most damning problem with electric cars. With so many politicians committing to EVs within 20, 15, 10, or even five years, one has to wonder: where do they intend to get the resources to build them all?
A lot of different components go into building an electric car, such as batteries, motors, wiring, and processors. The batteries power the car, the wiring brings the power to the motors which turn the wheels, and the processor is the computer that makes everything work the way it’s meant to. When these components are brought together, they can make something that is, in a sense, better for the environment than a fossil fuel-powered car, the manufacturing process for these components is incredibly damaging to the environment.
Specifically, the mining of lithium for an electric car’s batteries can cause damage to the environment by taking water from an ecosystem and polluting the ecosystem with toxic metals such as arsenic. Similarly, copper refining produces acids which can pollute the water table and kill crops.
The electric car’s processors pose a different problem. Specifically, the manufacturing process is long and intensive, and if the hardware shortages of the past 18 months are any indication, this is a sensitive industry with far-reaching consequences. New facilities are being built to offset this, but car companies are frequently the last to get the processors they need. This industry is already stretched to capacity, and car companies are a low priority compared to computer companies.
These factors together mean that reaching various governments’ electric vehicle mandates will be very difficult, and likely very harmful to the environment. Combine this with the fact that China currently has an iron grasp on the EV supply chain, and it becomes evident that, while EVs have some environmental advantages, currently they are unsustainable.
So, what can we do to help the environment, if not EVs? Some good places to start would be investing in more sustainable infrastructure, like building electrified railroads instead of highways, or installing solar panels on homes and schools.
Instead of getting caught up in the hype of electric cars, we should see what would be needed to invest in them fully, and see if there isn’t a better way to make a sustainable society.
Richard H. Hronik III is an aspiring journalist and senior at George Mason University.