by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
Governments and businesses are finally getting excited about electric vehicles (EVs). That is promising as long as cities recognize that the transition to EVs is only one of many changes needed to restore our balance with nature as well as tackle climate change.
EVs produce fewer tailpipe emissions over their life spans than gas-powered cars and they produce zero tailpipe emissions when they are charged with electricity generated exclusively by power plants that use solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy. But to actually be zero-emission vehicles, EVs will have to be manufactured with materials that are mined, processed, and transported using renewable energy as well.
Hopefully, in pursuing the elimination of GHG emissions we will not create entirely new threats for our fellow creatures and the health of the planet. Some mining experts claim that it is increasingly difficult to access the best places on land to mine the cobalt, nickel and other resources needed for some types of EV batteries and that we must extract these minerals from the ocean floor. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is developing rules that could permit seabed mining as early as 2024 despite the fact that scientists have not fully studied the consequences of commercially excavating the ocean floor. The Secretary General of the ISA has opined that the impacts of seabed mining are predictable and manageable. But many experts argue that we actually know relatively little about lifeforms that have evolved on the deep ocean floor or about what role seabed ecosystems might play in the global carbon cycle (Woody and Halper 2022).
To be clear, the world needs a socially and environmentally responsible transition to EVs. But simply switching from gas to electricity will not single-handedly change the ways in which motor vehicles of all kinds have minimized the ability of people to use most of the public right of way without their cars. When occupied only by a driver, EVs waste just as much of the right of way as gas powered vehicles and do just as much to reinforce the current imbalance between people and machines within the public space essential to healthy cities. Unless the rise of EVs is accompanied by a reduction in motor vehicle trips and mileage, they will be no better than gas powered cars in curbing the resource-devouring sprawl that has characterized urban growth for over a century.
The mission statement of Ecocity Builders reads: Reshaping cities for the long-term health of human and natural systems. To work toward that goal, Ecocity Builders advocates for our 18 Ecocity Standards, including one called ‘access by proximity.’ As our founder Richard Register might put it, the fastest and least harmful way of getting from A to B is to put A in the same place as B. When we build compact, diverse communities with safe spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists, people are able to reach schools, work, and most everyday activities under their own power rather than relying on external energy sources of any kind.
In addition to zero-emission vehicles, the planet needs zero-emission cities. Most communities are a long way from reaching that goal. But the ones that are closest are pursuing a holistic strategy that incorporates all aspects of sustainability like the Ecocity Standards.
Woody, T. and Halper, E. Making waves over seabed mining. Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2022. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-04-19/gold-rush-in-the-deep-sea-raises-questions-about-international-seabed-authority.