Sunday 4 January 2015

The green illusions and false promises of the electric car (including Tesla)

Summary: Naive environmentalists have been fooled into thinking that private electric cars are green, sustainable and a necessary, key part of our transport future. In reality, electric cars are about sustainability only for the automotive industry and status quo financial and industrial systems. Thankfully, new sceptics like Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions, have broken into the mainstream media with arguments dispelling the myths and greenwash around electric cars. I'll use this post to collate evidence that demonstrates why private electric cars will simply perpetuate our real problems (private cars, a commuting culture, a consumption and growth based economy). Bikes are the real solution for local trips, with public transport for longer journeys and car share and carpooling where required. And the focus of genuine environmentalists should be on transformative improvements to how we live, work, get around, and build a healthier, fairer society.

Related Posts:
> See the politics and transport futures category of this blog.

1. Electric car boosters claim we can continue with everyone getting around by car, they just need to switch to electric ones
- The story we're supposed to believe is that we can just keep the bike in the garage, grab our government subsidy, buy a new car and, as long as it's electric, we're part of a progressive transport future that will resolve our growing environmental, sustainability and lifestyle issues.
> Fix: The Electric Car Revolution
> NY Times: Europe’s Big Bet on EVs and Hybrids
> Treehugger: Tesla Model S named 'Most important car of the last 20 years' by The Telegraph
RenewEconomy: Tesla arrival tells us that the future is electric transport
> Vice Motherboard: How Solar Power Could Slay the Fossil Fuel Empire by 2030

YouTube: Chevy Volt - Building A Better Tomorrow

2. Private cars are the actual big problem. Private electric cars just add to this problem and solve nothing
- By breathing new life into the value of private car ownership and use, electric cars are keeping an inefficient, expensive, harmful and earth-destroying system going - a system that is starting to strangle the majority of people with ridiculous housing costs, commutes, transport costs and life impacts. The deficiencies in this system are slowly becoming obvious and it is inevitable that more and more people will strive to opt out. I like this Tesla S ad as an example, because it is in part trying to prove that electric cars can do everything conventional cars do, which makes it perfect to illustrate that electric cars will just perpetuate and extend the issues with private cars:

Problem with car-centric livesReal solutions
Long distance car trips- Eliminate them. People need to shift to lives based around home and local communities rather than wasting so much time travelling in cars.
- "Range anxiety" is a psychological ailment because life isn't meant to be spent sitting in cars or criss-crossing vast areas.
Road trips by carTry bike trips instead and use public transport or shared transport to minimise private car use.
Car-dependent recreation and social activitiesYou can fly a kite in the park you walk/ride to. There is no recreation that needs to be car-dependent. Switch from ferrying kids around to activities that can be gotten to by cycling, walking or transit.
Car-dependent work commutesEliminate them by reducing work, working closer to home or from home, and switching to biking or public transport.
Requiring a car to connect with othersLive closer to family and friends. Free up time to connect with neighbours on community co-production and recreation.
Consumption-based lifestylesSwitch to a lifestyle of "voluntary simplicity" and "intentional living" where you target happiness and fulfillment and escape the hedonic treadmill of pointless consumption.
Income-focused livesRedesigning your life to go car-free or car-lite and adopting voluntary simplicity will enable you to downshift and reduce time working for others and time away from home. It may also lead to you switching to work from home or close to home.
Unhealthy lifestylesFreeing yourself from car-dependence and work-addiction and using walking and cycling to get around will build in free exercise to your daily life as well as give you time to take up activities that enhance your physical and mental health.
Lack of self-sufficiency and resilienceVoluntary simplicity and reduced car-dependence will lead to less dependence on purchasing everything as a service. Instead you have time to build skills and meet your own needs directly or through local sharing.
Congestion wastes time in trafficEliminating unnecessary and long distance local trips and switching to cycling or transit will eliminate being stuck in traffic and all the other car-related wasted time.
Achieving status through carsReject the desire for social status. Instead, obtain pride from the simplicity, independence and quality of your life.
Deaths and injuries- Choosing to use a heavy, inefficient vehicle to get around that results in over a million people being killed each year and tens of millions being injured is a sickness (even worse when you consider the wildlife and pets).
- Choosing to participate in an arms race of vehicle size, weight and "kill or be killed" defences that enable you to drive at lethal speeds is sociopathic.
- Switch to cycling and walking as your means of getting around.

- Ultimately, many more people need to come to understand why using a private car regularly, especially for local trips, is an affliction that they need to resolve. Not only would I reject a free Tesla Model S, even if delivered in person by Elon Musk, but there is no amount of money you could pay me to switch to using a car for local transport - even if 100% safe and with the lowest environmental impact possible.

- The best visual, animated explanation of the difference between "more of the same" and genuine solutions that are objectively better can be found on Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff website. Watch "The Story of Solutions" and consider if electric cars are real solutions to society's important problems.

The Story of Solutions (YouTube)

> My Goodreads "urban cycling" shelf for books about the adverse impacts of the car
> NY Times: Opinionator - Driving Sideways (Allison Arieff)
Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives

3. Apparently electric cars don't take from the earth, they just drink free gallons of light from the sun!
- Ok so my antipathy for electric cars turned out to be for private car ownership and unnecessary car use in general. But what of the argument that most people don't share my view and won't be convinced, so if people are going to own and drive cars, at least it would be better for the environment if they were electric cars? Isn't that reason enough to support electric cars? My answer is that the current, car-centric, misanthropic system and lifestyle is already in inevitable collapse (human more than environmental). Switching to electric cars is like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Nevertheless, the rest of this post will focus on whether the environmental argument for electric cars is correct or a fiction.

For our example, let's take the Tesla S "Gallons of Light" ad. I conside it a perfect example of greenwashing - pure capitalism dressed up as progressive environmentalism:
A car that may lead other cars in no longer taking from the earth, but accepting from the sun. Untold memories per gallon of light.
YouTube: Tesla Model S: "Gallons of Light" Commercial

- According to the ad's creator, it all started at the Copenhagen Conference, driven by a passion for the environment. When he stumbled on the Tesla S he'd seen the "revolution in transportation" and the way to a sustainable future:
Just look at the automobile. Worldwide, there are over 1 billion cars and trucks using engine technology that is over 100 years old. The byproducts of this technology – greenhouse gasses and countless other pollutants – are making us and our planet sick. Yet amazing progress is being made with both hybrid and electric cars, not to mention increased fuel efficiency and the promise of hydrogen technology. So, how does the Tesla Model S fit into this picture? Well, it’s a state of the art electric vehicle that charges on sunshine…for free.
Jordan Bloch: Gallons of Light campaign for Tesla S
- Make no mistake, the ad is beautiful and Jordan is very talented, but he couldn't be more wrong about private electric cars being a revolution in transportation or the key to a sustainable future. The problem is the private motor vehicle itself, and everything that it requires to be created and used. Simply switching petrol for electricity cannot resolve these fundamental issues. Neither the greenhouse emissions of the fuel consumed nor the pollutants emitted are near the top of the list of adverse environmental impacts from the creation and use of private cars. The world needs to be getting rid of cars and their damaging legacies not producing more or even just different (electric), more expensive ones. Just the production of each new electric car will cause far more greenhouse emissions and pollution than they can "save" over their lifetime. Even these imagined "savings" presume a business-as-usual addiction to car-centric cities and lives can continue. That presumed growth in cars is the very definition of unsustainable. Now that the Tesla Model S has finally come to Australia, I shouldn't need to do anything more than point to the absurd price of the cheapest option - it indicates just how much this electric car really takes from the earth just to produce and deliver:

Tesla Australia

This intuitive "price as a proxy for environmental impact" shorthand I've always used mentally (e.g. for expensive "eco homes") is finally breaking into the mainstream debates about how green new products/solutions really are:
Many such studies (arguing electric cars are clean) are not especially compelling, because they don’t hold up to the shorthand cost check that I term the price-tag predicament. The cost of manufactured goods ultimately boils down to two things: natural resource extraction, and profit. Extraction is largely based on fossil-fuel inputs. Profit, in this broad stroke, is essentially a promise to extract more in the future. Generally speaking, if a supposedly green machine costs more than its conventional rival, then more resources had to be claimed to make it possible. A lot of carbon must be poured into the atmosphere to make and charge an electric car.
IEEE Spectrum: Ozzie Zehner Responds to His Critics
4. Ozzie Zehner's argument is that the total lifecycle costs of electric cars indicate there is no net environmental benefit in mass production of private electric cars instead of conventional cars
- Ozzie Zehner recently authored a book I highly recommend called Green Illusions in which he takes on myths about clean energy and other sacred cows of the unsophisticated, mainstream environmental movement. He also recently wrote an article exposing the environmental claims about electric cars: IEEE Spectrum: Unclean at Any Speed - Electric cars don’t solve the automobile’s environmental problems. The entire article is required reading, but I've excerpted some of his key points below. He essentially argues that average citizens have been seduced into allowing electric cars to be massively subsidised for wealthy people when the evidence indicates that their environmental impacts, though different and often hidden, are at least as bad as for conventional cars. Even worse, poorer people in rural areas stand to suffer the most from the massive increases in electricity production that would be required to make electric cars mainstream. Given electric cars are so expensive, and even at the cheaper end are making little market impact, it is irrational to prioritise them over more sensible changes to implement higher vehicle emission standards and enforcement, and make the changes to cities that would enable more people to cycle, walk and use public transit.
Meanwhile, environmentalists who once stood entirely against the proliferation of automobiles now champion subsidies for companies selling electric cars and tax credits for people buying them. Two dozen governments around the world subsidize the purchase of electric vehicles. In Canada, for example, the governments of Ontario and Quebec pay drivers up to C $8500 to drive an electric car. The United Kingdom offers a £5000 Plug-in Car Grant. And the U.S. federal government provides up to $7500 in tax credits for people who buy plug-in electric vehicles, even though many of them are affluent enough not to need such help. (The average Chevy Volt owner, for example, has an income of $170 000 per year.) Some states offer additional tax incentives. California brings the total credit up to $10 000, and Colorado to $13 500—more than the base price of a brand new Ford Fiesta. West Virginia offers the sweetest deal. The state’s mining interests are salivating at the possibility of shifting automotive transportation from petroleum over to coal. Residents can receive a total credit of up to $15 000 for an electric-car purchase and up to $10 000 toward the cost of a personal charging station. 
There are other perks. Ten U.S. states open the high-occupancy lanes of their highways to electric cars, even if the car carries a lone driver. Numerous stores offer VIP parking for electric vehicles—and sometimes a free fill-up of electrons. Mayor Johnson even moved to relieve electric-car owners of the burden of London’s famed congestion fee. Alas, these carrots can’t overcome the reality that the prices of electric cars are still very high—a reflection of the substantial material and fossil-fuel costs that accrue to the companies constructing them. And some taxpayers understandably feel cheated that these subsidies tend to go to the very rich. Amid all the hype and hyperbole, it’s time to look behind the curtain. Are electric cars really so green? 
Electric-car makers like to point out, for instance, that their vehicles can be charged from renewable sources, such as solar energy. Even if that were possible to do on a large scale, manufacturing the vast number of photovoltaic cells required would have venomous side effects. Solar cells contain heavy metals, and their manufacturing releases greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, which has 23 000 times as much global warming potential as CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What’s more, fossil fuels are burned in the extraction of the raw materials needed to make solar cells and wind turbines—and for their fabrication, assembly, and maintenance. The same is true for the redundant backup power plants they require. And even more fossil fuel is burned when all this equipment is decommissioned. 
One study attempted to paint a complete picture. Published by the National Academies in 2010 and overseen by two dozen of the United States’ leading scientists, it is perhaps the most comprehensive account of electric-car effects to date. As with many earlier studies, it found that operating an electric car was less damaging than refueling a gasoline-powered one. It isn’t that simple, however, according to Maureen Cropper, the report committee’s vice chair and a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. “Whether we are talking about a conventional gasoline-powered automobile, an electric vehicle, or a hybrid, most of the damages are actually coming from stages other than just the driving of the vehicle,” she points out. 
The materials used in batteries are no less burdensome to the environment, the MIT study noted. Compounds such as lithium, copper, and nickel must be coaxed from the earth and processed in ways that demand energy and can release toxic wastes. At the end of their useful lives, batteries can also pose a problem. If recycled properly, the compounds are rather benign—although not something you’d want to spread on a bagel. But handled improperly, disposed batteries can release toxic chemicals. The National Academies’ assessment didn’t ignore those difficult-to-measure realities. It drew together the effects of vehicle construction, fuel extraction, refining, emissions, and other factors. In a gut punch to electric-car advocates, it concluded that the vehicles’ lifetime health and environmental damages (excluding long-term climatic effects) are actually greater than those of gasoline-powered cars. Indeed, the study found that an electric car is likely worse than a car fueled exclusively by gasoline derived from Canadian tar sands! 
As for greenhouse-gas emissions and their influence on future climate, the researchers didn’t ignore those either. The investigators, like many others who have probed this issue, found that electric vehicles generally produce fewer of these emissions than their gasoline or diesel-fueled counterparts - but only marginally so when full life-cycle effects are accounted for. The lifetime difference in greenhouse-gas emissions between vehicles powered by batteries and those powered by low-sulfur diesel, for example, was hardly discernible.
The National Academies’ study stood out for its comprehensiveness, but it’s not the only one to make such grim assessments. A Norwegian study published last October in the Journal of Industrial Ecology compared life-cycle impacts of electric vehicles. The researchers considered acid rain, airborne particulates, water pollution, smog, and toxicity to humans, as well as depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resources. According to coauthor Anders Stromman, “electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, despite virtually zero direct emissions during operation.” 
North American power station emissions also largely occur outside of urban areas, as do the damaging consequences of nuclear- and fossil-fuel extraction. And that leads to some critical questions. Do electric cars simply move pollution from upper-middle-class communities in Beverly Hills and Virginia Beach to poor communities in the backwaters of West Virginia and the nation’s industrial exurbs? Are electric cars a sleight of hand that allows peace of mind for those who are already comfortable at the expense of intensifying asthma, heart problems, and radiation risks among the poor and politically disconnected? 
Upon closer consideration, moving from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric cars begins to look more and more like shifting from one brand of cigarettes to another. We wouldn’t expect doctors to endorse such a thing. Should environmentally minded people really revere electric cars? Perhaps we should look beyond the shiny gadgets now being offered and revisit some less sexy but potent options - smog reduction, bike lanes, energy taxes, and land-use changes to start. Let’s not be seduced by high-tech illusions.
Unclean at Any Speed - Electric cars don’t solve the automobile’s environmental problems
> Wired: Author Claims Electric Vehicles Are a Green Illusion
> IEEE Spectrum: Ozzie Zehner Responds to His Critics
> Grist: Electric cars are clean today and will only get cleaner tomorrow

- Ozzie Zehner makes many other cogent arguments in his Green Illusions book, articles and videos that are worthy of further investigation and which I'll incorporate into future posts. With regard to electric cars, the most salient is that there is no such thing as "clean energy" because all renewable energy is inextricably dependent on fossil fuels at each stage of the lifecycle. Scaling up renewables like wind and solar (thus total energy production) to try and power a mass-market fleet of electric cars would thus simply lead to both a massive increase in fossil fuel consumption as well as new large-scale environmental impacts specific to "green" technologies. Ozzie argues that we need to reduce total energy production and focus on proven, massively-untapped opportunities like energy efficiency. Also, a transformation in society (e.g. human rights, healthcare) and the economy (e.g. degrowth, focusing on quality of life not production and comsumption) is what we really need to focus on, not the tech fixes. Indeed, in the absence of those transformations to the existing economy, society and culture, alternative energy and electric cars will just pile up more problems:
"Alternative energy is not a free ride, just a different ride," he added, "and there's no reason to believe it will offset fossil fuel use in a society that has high levels of consumption and is growing exponentially." Put another way, renewable energy only makes sense if undertaken in concert with other, more fundamental changes in the way we deploy and make use of energy in our everyday lives.
Huffington Post: Ozzie Zehner's 'Green Illusions' Ruffles Feathers

Green Illusions website
The Wrong Kind of Green: Watch Ozzie Zehner on Green Illusions (videos)

5. Elon Musk is just another capitalist not an environmentalist or our technological saviour
- I get really tired of the mainstream media and bloggers lauding Elon Musk as a visionary who is going to fix our transport problems. The hyperloop and other Personal Rapid Transit is a techno-fantasy that will never happen and Elon isn't interested in public transit. (See: Transport tech fantasies vs existing cycling solutions). More importantly, Elon is the chief force behind the political and mainstream acceptance that the future of transport is electric cars - which is one of the most destructive and regressive trends for the welfare of people and the environment.

Vanity Fair: The New Establishment - Elon Musk
The story of Elon Musk and GM’s race to build the first mass-market electric car
> CaixinOnline: The Driving Forces of Elon Musk

Vanity Fair: The New Establishment - Elon Musk

6. "Green Tech" is often just another way to transfer wealth to rent-seeking corporations
- A level playing field is the only fundamental necessity for real technology solutions to make sustainable progress. Sometimes limited government assistance and incentives can be a catalyst but large scale assistance that never ends is generally a clear sign that the real game is wealth transfer and rent seeking. When you see a litany of failures of goverment-assisted projects and companies, as well as boom and bust cycles, it should be very clear that these green initiatives are not driven by sustainability but corporatism and crony capitalism.
> Slate: Unaffordable at Any Speed
> National Review Online: The Next ‘Next Solyndra’
> NY Times: Batteries Not Included

7. The mainstream environmental movement has to drop the cheerleading techno-fix pom poms and focus on "deep green" transformative ideas
- To attack the current green obsession with "clean energy" and electric cars raises the ire of unsophisticated and dilettante environmentalists as well as those who are just using green causes to pursue money, status and careers. Ozzie Zehner explains that the real environmentalists need to recapture the agenda and understand what genuine transformation requires:
I would say that the environmental movement has relegated itself to cheerleading and mindless chants and that it's time for us to step away from the pom-poms. I encounter a boundless enthusiasm for creating positive change when holding dialogues with environmental groups. Unfortunately, the mainstream environmental movement is channeling that energy into an increasingly corporatist, and what I call a "productivist," set of priorities
Now I admit, it's difficult to say we've ever had a truly transformational environmental movement, but if you go back 50 years, activists were at least on a far better path. Prominent environmentalists were living modestly, challenging dominant economic assumptions, and imagining durable strategies for human prosperity that were more in tune with the non-human planet. That humility has largely eroded. 
The modern environmental movement has rolled over to become an outlet for loggers, energy firms and car companies to plug into. It is now primarily a social media platform for consumerism, growth and energy production - an institutionalized philanderer of green illusions. If you need evidence, just go to any climate rally and you'll see a strip mall of stands for green products, green jobs and green energy. These will do nothing to solve the crisis we face, which is not an energy crisis but rather a crisis of consumption.
TruthOut: Power Shift Away From Green Illusions
8. Other articles and research challenging the false promises of electric cars
- Below I will collate the best articles I find illustrating other evidence and arguments against the electric car hype:
Talking Climate: Unsustainable practices - why electric cars are a failure of ambition
> The Guardian: Will electric cars ever enter the mainstream?
> Fast Company: A Broken Place

Further Info:
Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Unaffordable at Any Speed
Someday, Electric Cars Will Be Great
How Green Is a Tesla, Really?
Clean Air Is for the Wealthy

NY Times
Despite Push for Cleaner Cars, Sheer Numbers Could Work Against Climate Benefits
> Topic: Electric and hybrid vehicles
Will 2013 Be the Year of the Electric Car?
The Future Could Work, if We Let It
How Green Are Electric Cars? Depends on Where You Plug In
Batteries Not Included
Opinionator - Driving Sideways (Allison Arieff)
Earth-Friendly Elements, Mined Destructively

The Guardian
> Topic: "Electric cars"
Electric vehicles: how can brands get consumers behind the wheel?
Norway has fallen in love with electric cars – but the affair is coming to an end
The Guardian: Better Place - what went wrong for the electric car startup?
Are electric cars bad for the environment?
The flaws in the electric car scheme
Labour's £5,000 sweetener to launch electric car revolution
Sorry, Elon Musk – your Hyperloop is going nowhere

Shrink That Footprint
> The ‘electric cars aren’t green’ myth debunked
> Shades of Green: Electric Cars’ Carbon Emissions Around the Globe

> Posts tagged "electric cars"
Tesla Model S named 'Most important car of the last 20 years' by The Telegraph
It's time to drive on sunshine
Tesla CEO Elon Musk Speaks on the Future of Energy and Transportation

The Telegraph
> Topics: Green Motoring; Greener Transport
Tesla Model S: the most important car of the last 20 years
Affordable motoring in eco-friendly cars

Dissent Magazine
Green Energy Bust in Germany

Fox News
> Chevy Volt Cost TaxPayers 250000 For Every Car Sold (YouTube)

Bjorn Lomborg: Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret

> Ban cars

Renew Economy
Tesla arrival tells us that the future is electric transport
Are EVs cheaper to buy and run than petrol cars, yet?
Graph of the Day: The electric vehicle revolution is nigh
Costly, toxic and slow to charge? Busting electric car myths
> Top 7 reasons for considering an electric vehicle today
UBS: Time to join the solar, EV, storage revolution
> The 5 key elements of sustainable transport

Transport Evolved
Beware The Misinterpreted Study: How Electric Cars Are Yet Again Being Miscast as Heavy Polluters
You Tell Us: Do Tesla Electric Cars Deserve The Same Tax Credits As Cheaper Plug-ins?

EV Obsession
50 Big Aspects Of The Evolving Electric Vehicle Market
EV Incentives Effective, Especially When Diverse

Elon Musk, Future-of-Travel’s New Disrupter-in-Chief

Urban Foresight
> EV City Casebook

Tesla Australia

Plug In America

Attacking EVs: New Book Says Electric Cars Aren't Clean

Revenge of the Electric Car - Movie

Government incentives for plug-in electric vehicles

> Stories of creative ecology: What’s wrong with renewable energy?

Books and articles about the adverse impacts of private cars
Asphalt Nation - How the Automobile Took Over America, and How We Can Take It Back (Ch1)

Union of Concerned Scientists: State of Charge (2012)