At CleanTechnica, we are tireless advocates for electric vehicles of all kinds — especially passenger cars. A recent article in The Conversation asks “Why do we need so many cars”? Whether they are powered by gasoline, diesel, natural gas, propane, wood, coal, batteries, or some combination thereof, is it time to rethink the role of the automobile in society? Put another way, if we are serious about restraining carbon emissions so the Earth doesn’t overheat to the point where humans can no longer survive, is the private passenger car a luxury that we can no longer afford?
The Conversation article makes this point: “Transitioning from cities full of petrol-guzzling vehicles to cities full of electric ones won’t address all of the environmental and social problems associated with car dependence and mass manufacturing.”
Putting aside the advantages electric cars have over conventional cars in terms of carbon emissions while driving, all cars take up a huge amount of space in cities, space that could perhaps be put to better use for pedestrian and bicycle lanes as well as parks and other green areas for urban dwellers to enjoy.
Then there is the manufacturing and extraction of resources issue. No matter how “green” a car may be, obtaining the nickel, lithium, copper, cobalt, and graphite need to make them means extensive mining operations that cause local pollution and often impact Indigenous people disproportionately.
The article specifically mentions the destruction of ancient relics in the Juukan Gorges by Rio Tinto recently in order to expand its iron mine in the Pilbarra region of Western Australia. Those relics were considered an important part of Australia’s Aboriginal cultural heritage and were a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity.
How ironic is it that the same government that let such cultural destruction proceed when it affected actual humans recently denied a permit for the Asian Renewable Energy Hub in the Pilbarra region because it would effect fragile wetlands and the habitat of migratory birds? The issue is not that wetlands and birds shouldn’t be protected. It is that the government should offer people the same protections.
Mining has its own environmental problems, from the loss of biodiversity when land it cleared to the pollution and contaminants it produces. It also has a voracious appetite for water in places where clean water is in short supply. Mining and other extractive activities usually take place out of public view and so the effects are invisible to the end users. Transporting all those raw materials creates significant carbon emissions, especially if they travel in ocean going cargo vessels.
In a recent report by the International Energy Agency, its director, Fatih Birol, says,”There’s a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions.”
Less Cars = More Space For People
Here is the nub of the plea for fewer cars by The Conversation:
“To focus on these problems is not to suggest the new policies on electric vehicles are unimportant, or that they don’t stand to have some positive environmental impact. The point is private EVs are not a solution to the combined challenges of reducing our urban environmental footprints and making better cities for all, and they have their own problems.
“Instead, we should develop a good mass public transport system with extensive and frequent coverage. Alongside urban development with a more even distribution of jobs, services and opportunities, investing in better public transport could reduce car dependence in our cities.
“This would have a range of environmental and social benefits — making more space available for people instead of machines, extending the benefits of mobility to people who can’t or don’t drive, and reducing demand for finite minerals.
“Ultimately, it’s important that a transition to electric vehicles doesn’t dominate the discussion we need to have about urban transport. Our challenge is to simultaneously reduce the carbon footprint of different forms of transport, while also thinking much more broadly about the sustainability and justice of the system of mobility that’s so central to daily life in our cities.”
We spend an inordinate amount of time here on CleanTechnica talking about cars. We delve into charging speeds, total cost of ownership, expanding EV charging networks, and range. We report ever scrap of news we can find about the progress of the EV revolution. But The Conversation reminds us there is another side to all this, a desire to not just replace all the cars in the world with electric vehicles but perhaps encourage a reduction in the total number of cars on the road.
It’s a radical thought, one that could have significant implications for all the job opportunities associated with building, transporting, selling, and repairing all those private passenger vehicles. While we are celebrating the shift to electric cars, perhaps we should also ask ourselves from time to time whether a world full of personal transportation devices is actually sustainable.