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Peter Senker, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, February 2020
Modern cars are large complex machines, each designed to travel tens of thousands of miles over several years. These notes represent an attempt to evaluate the impact of cars on global warming. For such an evaluation to be realistic, it must take into account cars’ total lifetime environmental impact, from the initial extraction of the materials needed for their construction, to the processes by which they are manufactured, to the fuels used to power their journeys, and to the cars’ disposal as waste and by recycling. By the end of 2018, about 5 million of the 1.3 billion cars on the world’s roads were either powered by electricity derived from batteries, or hybrid cars powered both by fossil fuel- petrol or diesel and electricity. The extraction of lithium from the earth and from brine deposits needed for production of the lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) to power ‘only’ 5 million electric cars has already caused huge environmental damage –especially in Latin America and China; and has used large quantities of energy.The 2016 Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,(UNFCCC), which supposedly dealt with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, envisaged 100 million electric cars in use worldwide by 2035. But this, seen in the context of expansion in the total world car “fleet”, that could be as large as 1.8 billion cars by 2035, would cause a substantial increase in global warming. Reduction in the contribution of transport of people and goods by land to environmental damage requires complex combinations of policies worldwide. Policies to increase use of public transport in place of cars are most important. Some battery powered electric vehicles such as buses and vehicles for transporting goods may well be justifiable environmentally. But the total number of cars produced and circulating on the world’s roads must be reduced considerably, especially in developed countries. Other radical policy measures needed include reducing people’s needs and desires to travel, helped by transformation of land use, especially in large cities.
There was huge investment in railways first in Britain in the 1840s followed by the rest of the world. Goods and people arriving in stations in large towns and cities were taken to their final destinations by horse-drawn vehicles.By the 1880s horse manure was causing terrible pollution in large cities After cars and lorries replaced horses, pollution was greatly reduced. Cars and lorries could get to places which railways could not get to, and did jobs which trains could not do..
Several huge corporations make cars. Numerous companies extract oil and convert it into fuel for powering cars, many companies extract minerals for use in making car components and make those component. Cars and trucks mainly made of steel and powered by petrol became the dominant mode of land-based transport in the world for both people and goods. Manufacturing a typical car uses more than 8,000 kilowatt hours of energy. It involves manufacture of a complex box of steel, includes various materials such as rubber and plastics, and incorporation of electronic control equipment.
Unlike public transport vehicles such as trains, trams and buses – and also taxis – most cars spend nearly all their time parked. Traffic congestion and parked cars often result in vehicles moving little faster in large cities and towns than the horse drawn vehicles they replaced. Cars often cause considerable congestion and chaos in rural areas as well as cities and large towns. Many supermarkets have been built in locations only easily accessible by car. Insufficient attention is paid to minimise need to travel by locating residential accommodation, work, shopping and recreational facilities near each other. In the United States – and increasingly in other countries especially highly populated ones such as India and China – over dependence on cars has helped a lot to cause global warming. Their manufacture involves massive and extensive mineral extraction around the world, with consequent pollution of land, water and air; it also causes disruption to communities previously living and working on the land from which the minerals are extracted. Car use also involves many human deaths and injuries occurring through road accidents, and also health problems arising from air pollution.
The 2016 Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed in 2016 called for at least 20% of all road vehicles (cars, 2 and 3-wheelers, trucks, buses and others) to be electrically powered by 2030.If regulation is to be effective in mitigating the environmental impact of different types of vehicle, it needs to be based on lifecycle analysis. It needs to take into account the environmental impact of extracting the materials from which vehicles are made ;and the environmental impact of the manufacturing processes which go into their production. The UNFCCC’s assumption that electric cars are beneficial to the environment is based solely on the virtually zero emissions from their exhaust pipes when they are being driven.
Over their lifecycle – from procurement of raw materials to manufacturing, use and recycling electric vehicles may generate more carbon emissions than petrol or diesel cars. Batteries are the principal factor in estimates that producing an electric vehicle uses about double the amount of energy needed to produce a combustion engine car. The energy used and environmental damage caused worldwide by the manufacture of batteries for “only” 5 million cars is already huge. A major factor in increasing both the demand for and the price of lithium has been demand from China which announced major expansion in electric car production in 2015.
Most batteries being used to power electric cars now are lithium- ion batteries (LIB). Production of LIB batteries is very energy-intensive. Lithium is a scarce mineral. Production of one ton of lithium requires either 250 tons of mineral ore to be mined, or 750 tons of mineral-rich brine to be pumped out.. When once, if ever electric cars are in widespread use, recycling the lithium from batteries which have ended their useful life could reduce the need for mining or pumping out minerals from brine very considerably.
The production of electric batteries to power the 5 million electric cars produced in the world so far have contributed significantly to global warming and other environmental damage. Producing “only”100 million electric cars by 2035 would cause huge environmental damage. If electric car production were to amount to 600 million by 2035 – only about a third of the 1.8 billion cars some forecasters expect to be on the world’s roads by then –the environmental damage would be immense.
Most of the batteries used to power electric cars now are lithium- ion batteries (LIB).It has been suggested that, by 2025, 90 percent of the world LIB market will consist of batteries for powering electric vehicles. Production of LIB batteries is very energy-intensive. Lithium is a scarce mineral. Production of one ton of lithium requires either 250 tons of the mineral ore to be mined, or 750 tons of mineral-rich brine to be extracted, Since 2000, most of the world’s lithium has been extracted from brine, for example in Bolivia, rather than by mining mineral ore The “Lithium Triangle” in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile which contains over half of the world’s stock of lithium and Is very dry. Lithium extraction is depriving farmers of water they need for agriculture. In Tibet water used for lithium extraction is poisoning rivers and killing large numbers of fish. Demand for lithium is increasing rapidly. Between 2017 and 2027 world demand for lithium could multiply eight times. Increasing demand could possibly lead to companies heating brine to extract lithium from it which would increase further the energy used in lithium production. Other minerals such as cobalt, which is particularly toxic, are also needed for battery production.
Most governments encourage private car use and many subsidise car manufacture and have undertaken very large highway construction projects.
Private car-ownership and use is increasing rapidly in countries in Africa and Asia especially where there have been population increases and industrial growth. China has already become second to the United States in terms of car ownership
The total world car fleet was about 1 million in 1930. By the middle of 2010, it was about 1 billion –a thousand times greater. By 2019, it had grown further to about 1.3 billion. The majority of the world’s car fleet is still concentrated in richer countries, including North America and Europe. The principal growth now expected is in large poorer countries such as China and India, where hundreds of millions more people are expected to become sufficiently prosperous to afford to buy and run cars. The already huge world passenger car fleet is expected to grow much further, perhaps to about 1.8 billion cars in 2035.
In 1930, there was about one car for 2000 people worldwide. The proportion of cars to people increased to about one car for 50 people by the 1950s. By the first decade of the twenty first century it had risen to about one car for every eight people worldwide. State funding of car manufacturing is immense and widespread throughout the world. Every car manufacturer in Europe has received subsidies for establishing car manufacturing plants from the governments of the country in which they are located. Similarly, new car manufacturing plants in Brazil, China and India have received substantial state subsidies. Nowhere are such huge subsidies offered for investments in public transport.
It is widely believed that rapid growth in the production, sale and use of- road vehicles – a rising proportion of which will be cars using electric batteries as their source of power, is essential to meet people’s needs for transport at the same time as meeting global targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to improve air quality in towns and cities and to satisfy the demands of consumers.
Mass production and sale of electric cars began in about 2015. The cost of batteries used to power electric cars has been high, making the price for consumers wanting to buy an electric or hybrid car higher than a fossil fuel car. But the costs and prices of those batteries have fallen fast since electrically powered cars began to be mass produced. Costs and prices seem likely to continue to fall rapidly. So the price of an electrically powered car may be similar to that of a fossil fueled car by 2025.
Numerous car manufacturers worldwide have been investing heavily in manufacturing facilities to build electrically powered battery driven cars and hybrids. more than one million new electric cars were sold in 2017, and by the end of 2018 about 5 million electric cars were on the world’s roads.
There could be as many as one car for five people on the world’s roads by 2035. And by then as many as one third of a world car fleet of 1.8 billion cars could be electric. The UNFCCC’S Paris Agreement which was intended to deal with greenhouse-gas-emission mitigation envisaged 100 million electric cars in use worldwide by 2035.
China and Norway have been prominent in offering incentives, penalties and encouragement to stimulate shifts from fossil fuel powered cars to electric cars. China is the world’s largest market for cars -nearly a third of world car sales. Cars production in China, for both home and export markets has been growing in recent years.. The proportion of electric cars bought in China is much higher than in most other countries, at over 4.5 percent in 2019: about 2 million of the 5 million electric cars in the world are in China. This is largely the result of subsidies and incentives provided by the Chinese government to encourage buyers to purchase electric and hybrid cars. It provides incentives to encourage manufacturers to produce electric and hybrid cars, and legislates to deter manufacturers from making cars powered by fossil fuels.
Regulations controlling emissions have been introduced in many areas of Europe resulting in increased demand for battery driven fully electric cars , and for hybrid cars which rely partly on fossil fuel and partly on electric power from batteries for propulsion. For example, in London ,electrically powered and hybrid cars are exempted from the congestion charge levied on fossil-fuel powered cars. Norway still offers extremely generous incentives to buyers of electric cars , and penalizes people who continue to use gas or diesel cars The capital, Oslo, offers roll-free roads ,free parking and free battery charging for electric cars. At present, half of all new cars sold to Norwegians are either fully electric or hybrid, so that Norway now has the largest market in the world per capita.
The UNFCCC implies that there should be more than 100 million electric vehicles on the world’s roads by 2035, most of which would be cars. Forecasts which have been produced so far vary between about 100 million to 600 million electric cars
Expansion of electric car production and use continues to be stimulated by car manufacturers and encouraged by governments throughout the world, it is more likely to exacerbate environmental problems, including global warming than to alleviate them . Any “accounting” for global warming effects has to be international not national. Otherwise, an individual country could appear to be alleviating global warming by substantially increasing the number of electric cars on its roads, at the same time that the great increase in the manufacture of those electric cars involves enormous increases in energy being used in other countries to extract the lithium for those batteries from land and brine.Recent forecasts of the proportion of the world car fleet that will be electrically driven. vary widely, the highest being about a third of the total world fleet of about 1.8 billion by 2035, but some are much lower.
Forecasts suggest that the vast majority of battery electric road vehicles will be cars. It is important for life-cycle analysis to be applied systematically to compare the environmental impact of electric cars with fossil-fuelled cars.. It seems unlikely that electric cars can offer significant net environmental benefits.
But most goods vehicles and public passenger vehicles are much larger and more intensively used than cars. So global warming may be reduced by changing these vehicles from fossil fuel to battery electric propulsion.
Systems for de-privatizing cars such as car-sharing, co-operative car clubs and smart car-hire schemes are being developed and are growing fast in some rich societies, as cities in Europe, America and Asia face increasing, traffic congestion, parking and pollution problems. Some cities in Europe and North America have been experimenting with bicycle ride-share schemes. A case can be made for a much smaller numbers of cars to be manufactured and used, especially as taxis in the minority of circumstances in which neither public transport nor other means of personal mobility such as walking or cycling can be used efficiently and safely
It seems that the Norwegians are beginning to realise that the problem for cities is to reduce the total number of cars in them , not to switch cars from being fossil fueled to being powered by electricity. Oslo is now planning to make its whole downtown area car free, and is reducing some of the benefits it has been offering to electric car drivers. Brighton and Hove Council is aiming to introduce a car free central area by 2023
Reduction in the contribution of transport by land to environmental damage requires complex combinations of measures worldwide. These could include reducing people’s needs and desires to travel by transforming land use, especially in cities, together with measures to increase other means of personal mobility, at the same time as measures to increase substantially public transport’s share of those journeys still needing to be undertaken. The total number of cars produced and circulating on the world’s roads needs to be reduced sharply. .