By Anna Hanuska
“Zero Emissions Vehicle,” boasts the tiny bumper sticker, allowing its car unlimited access to the HOV lane. With the support of many lawmakers (including president-elect Joe Biden!) electric vehicles have become much more common. In fact, California Governor Gavin Newsom even announced last fall that all passenger vehicles sold in California must be “zero-emissions” by 2035. However, is this plan sustainable?
The short answer is, no. The term “zero emissions” simply means that there are no fumes coming out of the tailpipe of the car. Batteries for electric cars take more energy to produce, and the metals needed to make them are difficult to mine. The usual counterargument is that the “lifetime emissions” of electric cars are less. In fact, this is only true if the car is exclusively charged using renewable energy. So if you live in California, where renewables account for approximately 32% of generated energy, or if you have solar panels on your house, you have a fairly decent chance of charging with electricity produced from renewable sources. However, if you live somewhere like Virginia, where renewables account for only around 6% of generated energy, then you really aren’t helping the environment all that much. In that case, gas and coal are being burned to power your car anyway, just not while you’re in it. Nationwide, renewable sources only supply 17% of all energy. Transferring all of that remaining 83% of electricity to renewable sources is already a drastic leap, without adding the increase in demand from switching the nation to electric. Biden intends to shoot for net-zero emissions by 2050, which would have to include switching as many gas and diesel cars to electric as possible. There are 253 million vehicles on the roads in the US, and the production of electricity in America, renewable or not, may have trouble keeping up.
Additionally, this change to electric cars may impact society in other ways. In order to incentivize companies, the government may have to increase subsidies to electric car companies. There are already issues with such subsidies, as sending taxpayer money to Tesla in the name of sustainability to help them produce luxury cars for the wealthy seems like a waste. Also, if electric cars become mainstream across the country, eventually gas stations may become less common or successful, hurting those who stick with gas cars. This will include low-income people who cannot afford to buy a new car, electric or not. Decades down the line, racers, mechanics, and car hobbyists may be affected too. Only time will tell whether the electric shift is worth it.