If you get an EV, get a used one

This is an article by science communicator and journalist Bob McDonald, published on the CBC website a couple of weeks ago. I don’t intend to criticize the author or the point of the article itself (but I will comment on it), just to point out a fact that seems to elude journalists and the so-called mainstream media but that is worth to mention.

The article argues that since there is a widespread adoption of EVs and a lot of car manufacturers are trying to get back the lunch that Tesla stole from them, there will be an increase in the need for the mined materials that are used to create the batteries that power said EVs. The article cites a study by Richard Herrington in nature reviews materials, saying:

[…] by the year 2035, there could be 245 million battery electric vehicles on the road. In addition, there will be a huge demand for stationary batteries needed for energy storage to compensate for the less consistent output of clean energy sources such as wind and solar. 

Bob McDonald, “More electric cars on the road will mean increased mining for what goes in their batteries”, CBC.com, May 28th, 2021

Then, rightly so, McDonald points out how unethical mining can be in certain parts of the world, citing child labour, for example, or the extraction of resources that are necessary for the locals to live, such as water.

He finishes the article on a hopeful note mentioning the “million-mile-battery” that Tesla is reportedly working on; batteries that are so efficient that they can give you a million miles (1,609,344 km) worth of use.

This is all true, concerning, and infuriating, since we can’t seem to be able to escape from the continuous abuse to the environment even with the advent of cleaner technologies, like the electrification of the grid and the vehicles that we use on a day-to-day basis. It’s alarming.

Reading the paper that McDonald cited in his article, it’s easy to see where things are going wrong.

Herrington cites the UK Climate Change Committee‘s proposal of eliminating the Internal Combustion Engine (which is one of the main contributors to global warming world wide) from the car by the year 2050. The problem is:

To switch the UK’s fleet of 31.5 million ICEVs to battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), it would take an estimated 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes lithium carbonate, 7,200 tonnes neodymium and dysprosium and 2,362,500 tonnes copper […] This amount is twice the current annual world production of cobalt, an entire year’s world production of neodymium and three quarters of the world production of lithium. Replacing the estimated 1.4 billion ICEVs worldwide would need forty times these amounts. In addition, the energy revolution towards renewables, that is, wind, solar, wave, tidal, hydro, geothermal and nuclear, together with the newly built infrastructure for delivery, are highly reliant on mineral-based technologies

Richard Herrington, “Mining our green future”, Nature Reviews Materials, May 24th, 2021

Cool. Jumping head-first from one unsustainable way of doing things to another just as unsustainable.

Not all is doom and gloom, necessarily, as Herrington points out that by the year 2035 there will probably be enough Battery EVs on the road that an amount of the batteries may be able to be recycled. Around 17 million, maybe, just in the UK.

That’s progress, I guess.

The issue(s).

The issue is that this whole scenario depends on current consumption of vehicles to continue on the trend it has had for the past 50 years; that trend being people having multiple cars, buying them new and buying them every few years.

It also depends on our cities remaining car sanctuaries instead of moving on to a more car-free environment in which we can depend more on bikes and public transportation, so that less people will need to buy a car.

We had to buy a car last year when the pandemic hit, because we were not too into the idea of getting COVID from being in the bus. So we got a 2005 Chevy Epica that was in pretty good condition and wasn’t too expensive. There is no way we could have afforded a new car, and we didn’t want one. It is, however, convenient to move around in, especially when we need to travel across cities to visit family, because public transportation could be better in our little corner of the world.

But we didn’t want a car. We were happy with car-sharing services, the subway and the bus.

The issues mentioned above stem from three obsessions:

  1. Our obsession as purchasers of things (I refuse to say consumers) to get the newest, shiniest thing.
  2. The car manufacturers’ obsession (and any company’s obsession, really) to make new stuff and plan its obsolescence so that they can keep making new stuff and people keep buying. AKA money.
  3. The obsession of the UN and the governments to think of grandstanding but ultimately superficial regulations that prompt companies to all want to, for example, produce electric cars and exacerbate mining and abuse problems incurred by the companies creating these cars.

We don’t need a new car every year. Or an iPhone every six months for that matter. There are very few instances in which someone will need multiple vehicles, especially if they’re single or have a small family of 3 or 4. There is no reason for cities to prioritize car-specific infrastructure instead of the people who live in the cities.

It is important to remember that the most environmentally friendly car you can have is the one you already do. And if you don’t have one, then buying second hand is not only cheaper but also more environmentally friendly.

I said before we didn’t want a car, but I would be lying if I said we wouldn’t like an electric one. But that would be wasteful: our current car that we had to get as an emergency is perfectly functional and fulfils its purpose without a hitch. Not only that, but the charging infrastructure is missing where we live, with one or 2 chargers close to our apartment.

If we were to get an EV, though, we would prefer a used one over a brand new Tesla. Not that we could afford a new Tesla, mind you, but isn’t that the problem?

New cars, of any kind, are luxury items. Governments speeding the transition to renewables is commendable, but if it isn’t done right they will create a problem as bad as the one we had before, but in other areas, and won’t solve the core problem they set out to solve.

As exciting as the prospect of recycling batteries in the future is, I wish McDonald’s article had ended on a note on how we need to focus on reducing our acquisition of new shiny things.

In the end, buying and making more stuff that uses non-renewable resources won’t save the planet; instead it will enrich the already rich and impoverish the already poor.

What will save the planet is to shift our ways of thinking (instead of brand new cars, Tesla and other auto makers could develop a way to convert ICE vehicles into BEVs; cities could invest in more bike and public transport friendly infrastructure) and use what we already have.

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