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E-SUVs may be popular, but are they sustainable?
May 4, 2023

E-SUVs may be popular, but are they sustainable?

Many Americans get range anxiety when they contemplate buying an electric vehicle. Is the solution bigger car batteries or better charging and transit infrastructure?

Last month, the Joe Biden administration proposed strict carbon emissions standards that would essentially require two-thirds of all new cars sold to be electric by 2032.

But going big on electric vehicles might not be a big win for the environment if it also means going big on not-so-sustainable mining practices to extract lithium and other materials for EV batteries.

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Thea Riofrancos, a political science professor at Providence College who recently published a paper about thinking smaller when it comes to electric vehicles.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Thea Riofrancos: Our model shows that zero emissions in 2050 — if we don’t change our car-dependent kind of habits, the U.S. alone will require three times the amount of global lithium production that currently is produced, right? So we’ll just need an enormous amount of lithium to just satisfy the U.S. market if we don’t change how we move around. And that, of course, leaves open the question of what about all these other major markets — China, the European Union, India, etc. — that are also in the process of electrifying and also will need huge amounts of lithium as just one of the minerals that are needed, right? We focus on lithium, but there’s cobalt, there’s nickel, there’s copper, there’s graphite, but I think lithium gives us a window into a bunch of other minerals that also will be in high demand as different societies electrify.

Meghan McCarty Carino: And yet a lot of the excitement in the electric vehicle market in the U.S., at least in recent years, seems to be around bigger vehicles, SUVs, pickup trucks. In fact, General Motors recently announced it was discontinuing its small, economical electric vehicle, the Chevy Bolt, in favor of developing more bigger vehicles. I mean, what’s your take on that?

Riofrancos: We see more and more car companies as they are electrifying unrolling these luxury, very large models of basically electric SUVs, right? So replacing the gas guzzler SUV with the electric SUV. And I think that that’s a mistake. One cool thing that our study shows is that even if we stayed as car dependent as we currently are, like, we have the same rate of vehicle ownership and car usage, we still have the sprawled suburbs and the long distances that Americans drive to get around, even if we maintain that but all we did was bring our battery sizes in line with global norms, we would dramatically reduce the lithium needed by 2050. And so, you know, sometimes people say to me, oh, it’s not very realistic to get Americans out of cars. And I say, OK, well let’s focus on the cars that exist and think about how big our batteries have gotten. The average U.S. battery size for an electric vehicle is twice the global average. And we should ask why that is. And I would just say it has to do with how extremely profitable SUVs are, whether they’re carbon spewing or electric, for automakers. And there’s, you know, a lot of research and investigative reporting on that, but they are just much more profitable. And that’s why they’re sold to consumers and advertised so kind of aggressively.

McCarty Carino: I would imagine one of the reasons is to help alleviate range anxiety that a lot of people feel when switching to an electric car.

Riofrancos: Yeah, no, that’s a fair point. And I know that, you know, in surveys, many Americans report range anxiety, right? Which, for anyone that doesn’t know is the concern that your battery won’t get you far enough on a single charge, let’s say, or maybe a concern that it takes too long to charge the battery for it to be convenient, you know. I think a couple of things that we should unpack there. One is that most Americans also in those surveys report that they don’t drive anywhere near enough in a given day to get anywhere close to running out of battery charge, right? And if I know this might apply more to homeowners, or folks in apartment buildings where people, where the owner provides this, but charging overnight is totally enough. The second is that is how we solve the range issue. And I think that too much emphasis is put on ever bigger batteries that store more energy, but you know, begin to require amounts of resources that are unsustainable and also get really unaffordable because those resources are expensive. And so one way to solve it is huge batteries. But that’s not a really efficient way to solve the problem. A smarter way to solve it is a better charging network and one that uses more up-to-date charging technology that is faster, right? And so I think, you know, when we look at solutions, we should be holistic and look at how the sector is organized as a whole, rather than, like, let’s, you know, get the cars as big as possible.

McCarty Carino: Yeah, the sort of solving the problem through the car is, I think, probably the solution that feels more comfortable in America because it’s more of a market solution, I guess, versus solving the problem through the infrastructure, which tends to be more of a policy solution.

Riofrancos: Exactly. And it’s one that the car companies themselves market towards. I mean, there was some Super Bowl commercials even along these lines, right? Like buy a bigger car, rather than this kind of political and collective action issue that we need to solve as a society, which is our built environment, right? What does our sector look like? Where are the charging stations? Are there enough of them? Are they equitably sited? What other options do folks have? Can I walk down the street and, you know, get into a bus or hop onto an e-bike rather than always having to use my car, right? And so I think these are social questions that we should ask rather than relying on the private sector to solve for us.

McCarty Carino: It feels like, you know, the sort of going electric is, is the low-hanging fruit that kind of lets us off the hook from completely reordering and reimagining our lives, you know, in the face of climate change. I mean, do we need to start having that conversation about actually making sacrifices besides, like, installing a charger in your garage?

Riofrancos: The big climate science entities in the world, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, right? Every time they put out a report, they say that in order to address the climate crisis with the speed, urgency and equity that it requires, we need to think big about how to transform our everyday lives, right, and the way that our economies run and our societies run. I don’t necessarily think that that has to be framed as sacrifice. And so I think that, you know, we associate driving with freedom. But you know, our transportation system actually doesn’t offer a lot to people. And I’d love to frame it, like, “You will have more choices and more economic security.” If we can think of these more holistic changes that aim at equity and material uplift for everybody but also are conscious of climate impacts and resource impacts, I think that there is just a way to, to kind of invite people into that vision. Actually the issue is that there are not enough politicians speaking this way. Not that there aren’t especially younger voters that are ready to vote for folks that speak this way and implement these types of policies.

Riofrancos’ full report includes more on lithium mining and its political impacts. We talked about the need for more charging infrastructure to reduce reliance on giant batteries.

As part of the Biden administration’s push for greener transportation, $7.5 billion is put aside for EV charging infrastructure, including $5 billion for chargers along busy interstates.

Something that could happen a bit sooner: Tesla, which has the largest network of fast chargers, says it plans to open them up to all EVs with the use of some sort of adapter.

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