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Don’t denounce electric vehicles!

This is a response, by Alan Thornett, to the article entitled Deconstructing electric vehicles from Socialist Project in Canada, which was posted on the RGL site on November 5th as a discussion piece.

It is that it is astonishing that, in 2021, so many on the radical left, including far left organisations, continue to oppose the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs) in the face of a climate emergency. The latest example of this is an article from the Socialist Project (SP) of Canada entitled Deconstructing electric vehicles which (unbelievably) regards EVs as a dangerous technological fix. “Single technological fixes, like electric vehicles and batteries”, it says, “delay effective action”.

It seeks to discredit EV technology by throwing everything at them including the kitchen sink. For example, it denounces Elon Musk for releasing 358 tonnes of CO2 from his spaceship in a 6-minute flight. Whilst it is good to denounce Musk for the consequences of his outrageous plaything, it has nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of EV technology.

The raison d’etre of the article is to ‘prove’ that the environmental damage caused by EVs would be worse for the planet than that caused by the petrochemical industry in support of fossil powered vehicles. This is a gross and dangerous distortion – and the left should have nothing to do with it.

The oil industry extracts 95 million barrels of oil a year by methods ranging from deep drilling of land and seabed, including in environmentally protected regions, and by extreme energy extraction such as tar sands and fracking. We can add to this pollution caused as oil is transported around the world, from the cleaning of the bunkers at sea to major oil tanker disasters doing untold damage to the marine environment and the coast-lines. When it gets to its end-use it is pumped into the atmosphere as CO2 and carbon monoxide. There is no comparison.

If the line of the SP article were it to be adopted it would give fossil energy – i.e. the internal combustion engine- one of the biggest polluters on (and off) the planet, producing more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than industrial production and close to those of agriculture- an extra lease of life.

It would deny us the opportunity to make a major reduction in CO2 emissions quickly – i.e. within 10 years. Fossil powered vehicles are now the low hanging fruit of big carbon emission reductions. Of the 55 billion tonnes of anthropogenic GHG emissions pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere annually, 10 billion are from fossil powered vehicles that are easily replaced by a pre-existing and far better technology.

It would also rob us – equally disastrously – of the opportunity to save the hundreds of thousands of lives that are lost each year to tailpipe emissions – mostly carbon monoxide. The detractors of EVs should at least acknowledge this death toll. A study by the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT), in 2019, entitled ‘New study quantifies the global health impacts of vehicle exhaust’ estimated that vehicle tailpipe emissions were linked to 361,000 premature deaths worldwide in 2010 and 385,000 in 2015.

Even if fossil powered vehicles did not emit CO2, air pollution by carbon monoxide would more than justify their abolition.

 

The case for EVs

The advantages of EVs – from a technical, environmental, and public health standpoint – are already clear:

  • They already emit far less CO2 than fossil fuel vehicles which will be further improved once the national grid is decarbonised. The cartoon at the head of the SP article – which shows an electric car with a pipe to a coal fired power plant – misunderstands this point.
  • Fully electric vehicles (leaving aside hybrids)with no gearbox and fewer moving parts, are simpler and to manufacturer and maintain than internal combustion vehicles. They last longer and are much cheaper to run.
  • They are more efficient in turning electricity into traction than the internal combustion engine since they waste less heat in the process.
  • Powering vehicles centrally via the national grid is also more efficient than having a power unit in every car.

 

Rising demand

There is now a consensus amongst the elites that the combustion engine has to go within about 10 years. Since this was first mooted – after over 100 years of protection by the oil lobby – the race has been on, across the automotive industry, to switch to electrification in the shortest possible time. New models, that normally take 10 years to develop, are now emerging within a year.

The demand for EVs has been rising dramatically since this was announced, despite the problems with the recharging infrastructure and the high price of new electric vehicles – due mainly to the high cost of Lithium-ion batteries.

The pricing of EVs is set to change, however. According to science writer Davide Castelvecchi (in the August edition of Nature), the cost of lithium-ion batteries is set to fall by 20 per cent over the next two years – and the trend will continue downwards. They are already (he says) 30 times cheaper than when they were first introduced in the early 1990. (EV cars are already cheaper to use over the course of their lifetime since they are less expensive to run and maintain.)

There are three caveats, however:

  • This should not mean replacing the current 1.4 billion fossil driven cars on the global roads with the same number of EVs. The planet needs a big reduction in the number of vehicles on the roads – cars in particular – if we are to respond to the climate emergency. We cannot, however, delay the introduction of EVs until we have a secured a big reduction in existing numbers of cars. We have to decarbonise and reduce vehicle usage at the same time given the scale of the problems we face.
  • Good quality free public transport is an essential precondition for any major reduction in individual car usage.
  • Even if we initially fall to reduce the overall vehicle numbers, however, the abolition of the internal combustion engine would still be a major advance both in terms of carbon emissions and air pollution.

Batteries

The critics of EVs – including the Socialist Project article – construct much of their case around the damage done by the extraction of the metals needed for battery manufacture – in particular lithium and cobalt. These metals, however, are not rare and are already extensively used in other technologies such as mobile phones and laptops – which the anti-EV lobby declines to mention.

A pro-EV research group in New Zealand called Better NZ Trust recently pointed out the following:

“Cobalt can be found in most rocks, and lithium is the first metal in the periodic table and one of only three elements created in the primordial Big Bang. Lithium is the 32nd most common element on the planet and both metals are critical because of modern societies’ dependence on lithium-ion battery technology for mobile phones, laptops, and now EVs.”

Cobalt is a by-product of nickel and copper mines, and is therefore dependent on the economic viability of those mining operations. Currently the most accessible reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is changing, however, with, for example, several Cornish tin mines being reopened to produce it.

It also points out that combustion engine vehicles use many of the same components: steel, plastics, epoxies, circuit boards, carbon fibre, glass, nickel, copper, lead acid battery and are therefore not much better in this regard. The combustion engine also uses precious and rare earth metals. The catalytic converter, which reduces emissions from the exhaust, for example, uses palladium, rhodium, cerium, and/or platinum.

Whilst mineral extraction is indeed a problem, and malpractice and abuse referenced in the SP article must be stamped out, there is no form of motorised transport system that has zero environmental impact. The choice we are faced with, therefore, is to adopt the power source that has the least impact on the planet, and on public health, and that is electric powered vehicles – cars, motorbikes, vans, HGVs, busses and agricultural and construction vehicles – and by a substantial margin.

Mineral extraction

The Socialist Project article references an article by Robin McKie (in the Observer of August 29th) on mineral extraction from the seabed to illustrate what they say is “the enormity and the depravity of ‘green’ deception”: i.e. electrical vehicles.

 

This, however, distorts McKie’s article – which amounts to a timely warning as to the dangers involved the discovery of new deposits of polymetallic nodules that have been located on the Pacific Ocean seabed that are used in a range of manufacturing process including reviewable technologies such as EVs, wind turbines, solar panels, and the attempts of mining companies to seek licences to exploit them. It is not an argument against EVs it is an argument for the protection of the sea bed. The same could be said about other practices that damage the sea bed – bottom trawling for fish for example.

McKie makes reference to the campaign led by David Attenborough to stop such extraction taking place. Minerals extracted in this way should not be used in the manufacture of renewable technology or anything else. Extraction practices such as those referenced in Bolivia, Ecuador, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or anywhere else should be stamped out. These metals should only be mined under strictly controlled conditions with full protection for the workforce.

He assesses the arguments from both sides – the extraction companies and the environmentalists – but nowhere does he present an argument against EVs or any other renewable technology. His point is that seabed mining is extremely destructive to the planet and it should stop, and he is absolutely right.

In fact he makes some strong points in defence of EVs. He points out, for example, that there is a whole range of viable alternative battery technologies that could avoid using these metals – which indeed there is. He also raises the issue of recycling, which is indeed crucial to the development of renewable technology and is largely absent from this discourse.

Recycling and reusing

Recycling, to his credit, major features of Davide Castelvecchi’s article,  it is subtitled: Reducing the use of scarce metals — and recycling them — will be key to the world’s transition to electric vehicles. He points out that all the metals used in lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, although not yet on a commercial basis. Technology, however, is improving all the time.

“In a typical recycling plant”, he tells us “batteries are first shredded, which turns cells into a powdered mixture of all the materials used. That mix is then broken down into its elemental constituents, either by liquefying it in a smelter (pyrometallurgy) or by dissolving it in acid (hydrometallurgy). Finally, metals are precipitated out of solution as salts…”

China’s largest manufacturer of lithium-ion cells, he says, can recycle 120,000 tonnes of batteries per year, according to a spokesperson. That’s the equivalent of what would be used in more than 200,000 cars, and the firm is able to recover most of the lithium, cobalt and nickel. Government policies are helping to encourage this. China already has financial and regulatory incentives for battery companies that source materials from recycling firms instead of importing freshly mined supplies. EV batteries are exceptionally durable lasting up to 20 years and may well outlive the vehicles they are built into.

When EVs are scrapped the batteries can be reused for less-demanding applications, such as stationary storage for domestic use, or for powering boats, for example. Once a smart grid has been introduced – which is crucial for the whole future of a renewable alternative – batteries could be charged at the cheapest time available. EVs could also be used to store electricity on behalf of the national grid and remunerated for it

There are also important innovations being tested that none of the articles in this debate have mentioned. Car batteries could be charged from under the road surfaces whilst the car is in transit which could halve the size of the batteries needed. Overhead power lines could be installed over the motorways which heavy vehicles could hook onto. Delivery vans could have interchangeable batteries depending on the demands of a particular job.

At the moment over a half of all new cars sold globally are gas-guzzling SUVs. They could be quickly outlawed, other than for specialised purposes.

Conclusion

If the left continues to denounce road vehicle electrification from the side-lines capitalism will impose its own model. It is already doing so. They will set their own terms for the future of road transport which will involve the replacement of the existing road transport fleet, including cars, with an electrified alternative that is even bigger. Pricing will remain elitist and subsidies to allow EVs to be owned by people with lower incomes when they need such a vehicle will be ruled out or kept to a minimum. Free public transport will be rejected as a first principle

Those on the left who oppose EVs should rethink. They should not only support the abolition of the combustion engine but campaign for a radical left agenda for the future of road transport in the best interests of people and planet. Revolution is not around the corner – unfortunately. We have to force capitalism to make major changes whilst it still exists and we only have 10 years to do it. You can’t build an ecosocialist society – or anything else– on a dead planet.

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