A New Era for the Roads?

Jasper Croft was a rural firefighter in Sydney, Australia. He was called to rescue people from a wildfire. However, this wasn’t any normal seasonal wildfire. This was a wildfire that had a speed and ferocity of three or four times than what has been seen before, according to his colleague Simon Adams. Croft and his crew were driving through a forest experiencing the worst of the wildfire, which was captured in a video that went viral. They had to retreat due to the treacherous conditions when they heard a radio message from another fire engine that was stranded after the brakes melted. Jasper had to make the decision to protect his crew and move back to safety due the ferocity of this wildfire.

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Australia’s wildfires at the beginning of 2020 were massive and devastating to the whole continent. Several sources such as the Scientific American and Yale Climate Connections explain how climate change and global warming influenced the worst of the wildfires and made those fires at least 30% more likely to occur.

Climate change is one of the biggest issues being discussed today. Part of this discussion is the heavy use of gasoline powered cars which are emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases. Global warming is causing many different problems worldwide, like Australia’s wildfires. But what is really behind these treacherous events? Could cars be at the center of it?

In the article “Switching to electric cars is key to fixing America’s ‘critically insufficient’ climate policies,” by Dana Nuccitelli, it is argued that a shift to electric vehicles is needed to save the environment. The biggest argument he is making is that the American power generation sector is rapidly decarbonizing and it’s time for the transportation sector to follow in its footsteps. He is saying the use of electric vehicles is the missing key for the US to meet its part in the 2-degree Celsius Paris international climate target. This is important since transportation and electricity each makes up 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US according to the Nuccitelli. Using more recent data, the transportation sector makes up 29% and electricity sector makes up 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 according to Climate Central.

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Nuccitelli argues against the point that EV’s require more electricity which is produced by releasing greenhouse gases. He states the power sector is decarbonizing with better renewable energy options. In other words, the electricity generated to run EV’s is becoming cleaner. US power sector emissions begun to fall rapidly in 2007 and dipped below the emissions from the transportation sector in 2016 for the first time since 1979. This would make sense given that the transportation sector contributed 1% more to greenhouse gas emissions than the electricity sector in 2018, according to the EPA, as well as in 2020 according to Climate Central.

Nuccitelli also compared electric cars to gasoline powered cars. He uses statistics from the Department of Energy, stating that carbon pollution from the electricity generated to run EV’s is 60% lower than the emissions of gasoline powered cars. In clean energy states like California its 80% lower, and even on some of the worst power grids in the US like Wyoming, which gets 96% of its electricity from coal, carbon emissions from EV’s are still 17% lower. Even using the dirtiest energy on the grid, electric cars are still cleaner than gas cars. Nuccitelli also thinks that the US will eventually pass climate legislation with fees on carbon polluting which will make clean renewable energy much more attractive. The US already has greenhouse gas regulations but there could be much more to come. According to CNBC, President Biden pledged $400 billion in public investment to clean energy and electric vehicles as well as government spending to support EV’s.

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Nuccitelli argues that EV batteries are becoming better and more affordable in newer electric cars. He provides a chart showing the EV sales price per mile which has fallen about 60% in the last decade, which means electric vehicles are developing a further driving range for more affordable prices. In addition to the more affordable prices of EV’s, it costs about double on average to fuel a gasoline powered car than to charge an EV. According to the US Department of Energy, it costs $0.04 per mile to charge your average electric car while it costs $0.15 of gas for every mile which is even more than double.

In the opinion by Robert Bryce, “Electric vehicles won’t save us from climate change,” it is argued that a shift to all EV’s will not be possible to recorrect climate change. Bryce states that electric cars only made up 2% of sales in 2018. According to Statista, it was about 2% in 2018 and stayed relatively consistent in 2020. According to S&P Global, 14.5 million vehicles were sold in 2020 and 300,000 of those were EV sales. That computes a percentage of 2.07% of total US vehicle sales for 2020. EV sales in the US have seemed consistent at 2% which raises the question: is it going to stay like that?

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Bryce also breaks down the math on the US gasoline consumption by cars. He adds that for every 1 million EV’s added to the roads, you’re saving 500 million gallons of gasoline per year. He comes to the conclusion that cutting US gasoline consumption by a third would require 100 million new EV’s, and that the US would have to deploy roughly 20 times the amount of EV’s that were being used around the world. To put this into perspective, cutting gasoline consumption by a third would require the US to deploy about 200 times the domestic amount being deployed now, according to Statista. He also makes the claim that decarbonizing transportation such as switching to electric cars will take decades. However, according to the United Nations, there is only about 10 years left before damage to the environment is irreversible.

Bryce used findings from Richard Herrington. Herrington is currently the head of earth sciences at the Natural History Museum in London since 2013. Bryce states that electric motors would need to contain a rare earth element called neodymium. According to Herrington, it would take nearly the entire world’s neodymium production to make just the UK full EV. Bryce concludes that it would take 9 times the world’s current neodymium production to turn the US full EV. This could be a problem considering neodymium is used in 80% of EV motors according to IDTechEx. This is including the clear leader in electric car models, the Tesla Model 3 which has neodymium in its motor. In addition to that, EV’s would also require a large amount of the world’s cobalt, lithium, and copper production. Bryce states that turning the US full EV would require 18 times the world’s cobalt production. However, according to Forbes, Tesla will be using cobalt-free batteries moving forward as it will be less expensive to use and will make EV’s more affordable. While cobalt-free batteries solve one problem, all EV’s will still need lithium and copper whose supply is in question if the US let alone the world were to go full EV.

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Bryce also argues that internal combustion engines are getting better. He says that there have been many improvements such as fuel injection, electronic ignition, and turbo chargers which have made the engines cleaner from emitting greenhouse gases and much more efficient. According to the EPA, the average fuel economy was at an all time high in 2020 following an upward trend as technology of internal combustion engines becomes more advanced. They also show a downward trend in the amount of CO2 emissions by cars in the past 50 years.

Climate change is a huge issue that is already causing problems and will have much worse effects down the road. It is a problem that we’re already behind on, so I think it is important to do whatever is possible. The heavy use of gasoline-powered cars is a big part of this problem. We were able to see this in 2020 when the COVID outbreak caused a lockdown and people were driving much less. During this time, US carbon emissions dropped by 12% and global carbon emissions dropped by 7% on the year according to CNBC. COVID created a great natural experiment which showed the difference gas powered cars make when they are not being driven.

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A good point Nuccitelli makes is that the transportation sector contributes 30% to greenhouse gas emissions, which is a big chunk of the problem. It is also important to note that this number recently overcame the percentage from the electricity sector. This tells me it is getting easier and cleaner to generate electricity and harder to decrease emissions from cars with a growing population that keeps driving. Nuccitelli backs that up by providing stats that EV’s pollute 60% less carbon emissions than the electricity generated to run electric cars. He also proves that if the power grids are made cleaner, that number could hit 80% or higher. Considering that, I think it would be an obvious decision to start converting cars to electric to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while making electric generation cleaner.

Eventually electric cars will have to take over to stop global warming. However, it will be extremely hard to do. And just as Bryce said, it could take decades to push out the absolutely massive industry gas guzzlers hold. One of the points Bryce makes is that the percentage of US car sales that were EV’s was only 2% and it has been staying at 2%. Electric vehicles will never take over if it stays like that. However, electric cars are being sold at an all time high right now, so 2021 could be a pivotal year for the EV industry. The EV takeover could be possible if that percentage experiences a large amount of growth every year over the next decade. In addition to that, Bryce brings up the problem of scarce resources that are used in electric cars such as neodymium, cobalt, lithium, and copper. However, Tesla is planning on using cobalt free batteries moving forward and not all Tesla models such as the Tesla Model S use neodymium, so it is possible to go without it. There are also possibilities of lithium-free batteries as technology advances so there are ways to get around a lack of resources if it comes to it.

Photo by Ernest Ojeh on Unsplash

There is no doubt that going full electric will be extremely difficult and take time, but I would try to do it as quick as possible. It is important to have the right people in charge. People that are determined to make the change’s that need to be made. It is a good start considering President Biden pledged money to the EV industry. There might eventually need to be pollution fines for driving gasoline cars, however that is legislation that wouldn’t happen until EV’s are more affordable and the roads are at least 50% EV. At the end of the day however, it is the people that would need to buy EV’s, so I think it is most important to normalize EV’s. Normalize affordable electric cars. Normalize charging stations just like gas stations. From what I can see right now, the vehicle market is starting to make a shift to electric, and that shift needs to continue and increase to save the environment.