Column: Changing with the climate


Car manufacturers including Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen are pivoting to electric vehicles based on the idea that battery-powered cars are greener than traditional combustion engines. However, the real environmental impact of a car includes both building and fueling costs, factoring in emissions associated with drilling for oil, burning coal, and mining precious metals, such as nickel and cobalt – key components of electric-car batteries.

The process of building any car creates several tons of greenhouse gas emissions, but electric vehicles tend to generate more pollution because of the metals needed for their lithium-ion batteries. According to the The Wall Street Journal, before it rolls off the assembly line, the Tesla Model 3 has already produced 65 percent more emissions than the Toyota RAV-4.

Nonetheless, combustion engines burn gasoline – a refined crude oil derivative – that is extracted from wells in the U.S. and abroad. When gasoline ignites, it releases high levels of carbon dioxide and other dangerous chemicals, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen, sulfur dioxide; whereas electric vehicless run on electricity, which can be generated from any number of low-carbon or renewable sources. 

According to a study conducted at the University of Toronto, producing electricity for an electric vehicle emits an average of 65 percent fewer emissions per mile than burning gasoline.

Electricity generation creates emissions, but the national grid is getting cleaner every year – burning less coal, using more renewables and natural gas. Furthermore, last week President Biden announced his plan to massively expand offshore wind on the east coast. These new wind farms are expected to continue this trend and further decarbonize the national grid.

After about 20,000 miles of driving, the total greenhouse gas emissions of similar electric and gas-powered vehicles are about the same, and after 100,000 miles, the emissions of an electric vehicle  are one-third lower than a traditional car with no added cost to the consumer, according to Consumer Reports.

That said, how quickly the U.S. switches from combustion engines to electric motors will have a significant effect on overall emissions since light-duty vehicles, such as personal cars, contribute about 17 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions each year.

While politicians and investors – who drive as many dollars into innovation as golf balls into the water – work to expand access to sustainable sources of energy, consumers making individual choices to invest in energy-efficient technologies can make a meaningful difference. More and more people are choosing to forgo their personal cars in exchange for alternative forms of transportation, such as mopeds or e-bikes, and clean public transportation will soon be a reality in several cities.

Outside of lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen-powered fuel cells and combustion engines that burn biofuel, as opposed to petroleum gas, offer other opportunities for sustainable applications, creating the possibility of a fossil-free future. With the climate at a dangerous precipice, we need to go big. Taking advantage of the willingness of this government to work with the private sector to shorten the timelines of sustainable development projects and make real progress towards meeting climate objectives is a categorical imperative for local politicians across the country looking to gain favor with the younger generation.

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