by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
The rapid acceleration of electric-vehicle adoption is a welcome sign that we are finally taking climate action seriously. EVs eliminate tailpipe emissions. But mining the materials needed for EVs generates significant environmental challenges and has produced social justice and workplace hazards around the world. If EVs simply replace gas-powered vehicles, our cities will continue to experience unacceptable levels of congestion, traffic-related deaths, and imbalance between the amount of public space devoted to private vehicles at the expense of cyclists, pedestrians and other humans. In addition, switching to privately-owned EVs will not solve the disproportionate economic burden that private vehicle ownership and operation creates for lower-income households.
Instead of merely switching from one motorized vehicle to another, maybe we should devote at least as much energy to building zero-emission cities that people can navigate on foot, by bicycle, or on public transportation.
In the May 2022 issue of Ecocities Emerging, I wrote that deep-sea mining for the cobalt, nickel, and other resources needed for EV batteries is threatening the floor of our oceans, where environmental protections are weak and/or hard to enforce. The land is also under threat.
In 2022, EVs accounted almost 15 percent of new car sales worldwide compared with three percent in 2019. To achieve climate action targets, lithium production is projected to increase 42-fold over the next 20 years. Currently, one quarter of lithium comes from mines in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. These mines are diverting the limited water reserves needed for livestock, rare animal species, and Indigenous people. Elsewhere, nickel mines are replacing Indonesian rainforests, cobalt mines are employing child labor in Africa, lithium mining is contaminating water supplies in China, and lithium mines proposed in Nevada are spawning protests from Native American tribes (Beiser 2022).
A report from the World Economic Forum reveals how extraction of the raw materials needed for EV batteries comes at a high cost for the planet. These metals are increasingly mined in countries willing to tolerate pollution, unsafe workplaces, low wages, and civil rights abuses. The Forum also notes that few systems are currently in place to meet the challenge of recycling and reusing the eleven million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries projected to accumulate by 2030 (Broom 2019).
Furthermore, to be completely zero-emission vehicles, EVs will have to be manufactured with materials that are mined, processed, and transported using renewable energy as well as charged by renewable energy generators that are also manufactured using renewable energy.
While welcoming the pivot away from infernal combustion engines, we should also recognize the impact of EVs on cities. Like their gas-powered counterparts, single-occupant EVs consume more than their fair share of the public right of way. EVs will be responsible for a growing portion of worldwide traffic deaths, which now stands at 1.35 million per year. EVs will do nothing to curb sprawl or allow streets to evolve from racetracks to people places.
As described in the May 2021 issue of Ecocities Emerging, retooling cities using compact urban form and livable, mixed-use neighborhoods alone can cut resource and energy use more than 50 percent. This form of city building is one of the four pillars of the Ecocity Standards. It involves “access by proximity”, the Ecocity Builders’ term for putting homes near workplaces, schools, shopping, and other destinations so that people can navigate their daily lives on foot, by bicycle or other means of eco-mobility. In addition to reducing the negative impacts of manufacturing, buying, maintaining, and operating a personal vehicle, (electric or otherwise), ecocity development allows people to spend more time being places rather than getting places.
Yes, we need zero-emission vehicles. But more importantly, we need to be working toward zero-emission cities.
Beiser, V. 2022. A Clean Energy Conundrum. Sierra Magazine, Winter 2022.
Broom, D. 2019. The dirty secret of electric vehicles. World Economic Forum. Accessed at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/03/the-dirty-secret-of-electric-vehicles/.