Are Electric Cars Part of the Climate Solution or Are They Actually Part of the Problem?

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If we are really going to make a dent in emissions we have to take real estate away from people who drive and redistribute it to people who walk and bike.

Writing in Citylab, Rebecca Bellan bemoans The grim state of electric vehicle adoption in the U.S. She notes the new report on climate from the IPCC and how emissions have to be drastically reduced in the next dozen years.

To accomplish this daunting feat, the global transportation sector will need a major overhaul. In the U.S., the world’s second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, transportation makes up the largest share of emissions. In cities, passenger vehicles and public transit fleets will have to move from fuel-burning engines to electrification, a “powerful measure to decarbonize short-distance vehicles,” according to the IPCC report.

Bellan then goes around the country, looking at incentives that cities and states are providing to build charging stations and subsidize cars. She describes how their prices might rise with the loss of tax credits and the support for fossil fuels from the Trump administration. But she sees hope:

If states and cities vigorously implemented their own incentives, rebates, and strategies to speed the EV transition, that could add up to something. Indeed, killing off internal combustion cars is one of the best shots the world has at rapid change in the transportation sector, said Seth Schultz, a special adviser on science and innovation to the Global Covenant of Mayors and a lead author on parts of the IPCC report.

At last, someone is making sense. Because Schultz goes on to say:

“We don’t have a lot of time, but one of the major opportunities to have the transformation at the scale and speed we need is cities and urban development.”

The problem with Bellan's article is that she appears to think that the only alternative to the gas powered car is an electric car. The trouble is that electric cars take up the same room and need the same road infrastructure as gasoline cars. Electric cars take a lot of aluminum and other materials to make, and given how long cars last these days, would take decades to replace gas-powered cars, even if every car made from now on was electric. Bellan never once mentions alternatives to the car like walking and biking and transit.

Alissa Walker noted earlier in Curbed that Cities, obsessed with electric cars, overlook simple solutions, writing about the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Lots of talk about climate, but "transportation was not even listed as one of the 'key challenge' areas of the summit, although it is increasing global emissions at a faster rate than any other sector."

At times, the summit felt more like an auto show. The event concluded with a cross-country electric vehicle road trip. There was the hashtag #CitiesDriveElectric. The only main stage session completely dedicated to transportation was like a series of car-centric infomercials: Hydrogen fuel-cell SUVs! Charging stations! Batteries!

More recently, Ellie Anzilotti reacted to all of this car talk and wrote in Fast Company that As we discuss big solutions to climate change, don’t forget people-friendly streets. She notes:

Research has found that if, globally, cycling rates can rise from their current level of 6% (around 1% in the U.S.) to around 14%, urban carbon emissions will drop 11%. Boosting walking would have similar benefits.

Anzilotti quotes a TreeHugger favourite, Andrea Learned, who keeps reminding us that Bikes are climate action and that we have to stop focusing so much attention on electric cars. We quoted her article before but missed her last paragraph, where she stresses bike and electric car advocates have to collaborate. I would add that walking is just as important, and neglected, as bikes. Newer technologies like e-bikes and e-scooters are also increasing our options.

What if a conversation about the opportunity of #bikes4climate was on every agenda, with panels of high-level leaders from both sectors swapping wisdom and finding collaboration points? The expertise, history and innovation foundation for such work is there if you look for it, with all stakeholders not quite realizing they’ve remained in their own corners. Climate action leaders, please introduce yourselves to bike and mobility industry leaders. We have the citizen interest and the pedal power to help reach Paris Agreement targets.

In some ways I think Andrea is dreaming; electric and gas cars occupy the same turf, they own the roads, and their advocates don't have much interest in giving up any valuable real estate. But to make bike use grow we need Copenhagen-style investment in bike lanes and infrastructure. We need wider sidewalks to cope with more walkers and an aging population with mobility devices and walkers. We need road diets and Vision Zero to slow cars down so that walking and biking people don't get killed, and meanwhile, the car makers are building electric rockets. The people in cars have no interest in collaborating.

And whether they are gas or electric, as John Lloyd notes in his tweet, cars are a dumb way to move people around.

Tesla Model 3

Tesla Model 3/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Electric cars are terrific and I have been coveting my neighbor's Model 3, the first I have seen. But as long as we keep investing in infrastructure for cars in general, then we will never give enough space to pedestrians and cyclists, and we will never get the dramatic shift away from cars that we need to make. Which makes electric cars less a part of the solution than they are part of the problem.