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LEFT WONDERING: Do Electric Vehicles Really Move The Climate Needle?

Jul 12, 2022 Kate Aronoff
Plus, is it okay to date capitalists?
LEFT WONDERING: Do Electric Vehicles Really Move The Climate Needle?
(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Have a question you’d like Left Wondering to answer? Send it to LeftWondering@levernews.com

Dear Left Wondering,

I paid over two times what I’ve ever paid for a vehicle mostly because I saw buying an electric vehicle (EV) as step one in cutting the fossil fuel cord in my life. (Next will be rooftop solar and swapping propane HVAC and water heating for electrically powered heat pump-based appliances.)

I had cord cutting as a goal well before actually purchasing the EV; I put a deposit down three years earlier. But there’s a different feeling after actually buying and driving an EV. It’s a vastly superior driving and owning experience from every perspective. Rather than feeling like I sacrificed, I feel like I improved my life and how I feel about everyone, everywhere, replacing fossil fuels.

I can’t convince Chevron to stop buying politicians, but I can stop sending them my money. The impact of my individual action in terms of addressing climate change rounds to zero, but how I think about addressing climate change is now grounded in a powerful personal experience that makes me believe getting the world off fossil fuels is as certain as the knowledge I’ll never again buy a gas-powered vehicle. That seems likely the sentiment of 99 percent of the 6.75 million EV owners as of March 2022. It’s hard to believe the environmental impact of all those EVs still rounds to zero.

Anyway, I’m wondering: To what extent does buying an EV move the needle in terms of sparking other fossil-fuel replacing activities?

Sincerely,

Personally Transcending Fossil Fuels (PTFF for short)

Dear PTFF,

I was tempted to edit this (somewhat lengthy) question down, but decided not to because I think you’ve started to answer that question yourself.

I’ll put my cards on the table and say that, as someone who has never had a driver’s license — for boring and entirely non-political reasons — I don’t have much context for what (I gather) is the smooth hum of an electric engine. I’ll trust you on that, PTFF. But what you’re getting at here has lessons beyond the relative emissions-cutting benefits of electric vehicles.

Those looking to tell a positive story about the world that ambitious climate policy can build have mostly, until recently, had to tell a story about the future. But there’s no substitute for getting a taste of that yourself. A long holiday weekend is a glimpse of what a world with a four-day work week might feel like. Using an efficient metro system to breeze around a dense, pleasant city loaded with parks and other public amenities is a better sales pitch for ditching car culture and suburban sprawl than the best communications strategist could muster. If people can experience aspects of a lower-carbon world themselves, they may well be open to fighting for more of them.

On the specifics, I’m skeptical that electric vehicles are quite the panacea for the planet that members of the Biden administration have made them out to be. There are many more drawbacks with cars than the fact that they run on fossil fuels, and electric vehicle supply chains have their own problems. As political scientist Thea Riofrancos has detailed, the scale of critical minerals that a one-for-one substitution of internal combustion engines for EVs would entail is a powerful argument for expanding mass transit, from e-bikes to buses to cars.

Not wanting to continue getting caught in endless traffic jams is another reason to be circumspect about EVs. The hulking electric tanks U.S. automakers seem keen to build are a wasteful, unnecessary danger to bikers, pedestrians, and just about anyone else forced to share a road with them.

Mass transit takes time to build, though. And the transportation sector needs to be decarbonized as quickly as possible. Transportation accounts for 28 percent of U.S. emissions — the largest of any sector — and light-duty vehicles (i.e. the cars most people drive around) make up roughly 60 percent of that.

We’ll need a lot of EVs, which currently make up a tiny percentage of the U.S. car fleet. We should hope that Congress passes policies that make them easier to get, and run off a grid that isn’t powered by coal and methane. EVs’ contribution to decarbonization depends heavily on where they get their power from, even if they have dramatically lower emissions over the course of their lifetime than oil and gas powered cars.

Like just about everything in the awe-inspiring planning challenge that is deep decarbonization, electric vehicles are necessary but not sufficient. If driving one convinces someone that a lower carbon world can be a more fun one, that’s probably a good thing. There are plenty of other ways to do that, too.

Sincerely,

Left Wondering


Dear Left Wondering,

A little while back, I was hitting it off with a guy I had matched with on a dating app. We chatted for a while and had plans to get dinner, but a few days before the date I went to look at his Twitter: He liked a post by Jeff Bezos and another by Elon Musk. I thought about canceling, but consulted with friends and decided to follow through with it. He was incredibly sweet and down-to-earth and we really connected. I told him I’m a staunch anti-capitalist up front. He told me he’s a capitalist, and we agreed to disagree on that point. We’ve been having a great time!

My question: Do we think it’s okay to be staunchly anti-capitalist and be sick of dating or hooking up with mean intellectual men on the left — and okay with sweet, caring capitalists?

Sincerely,

Political And Polysecure

Dear Political And Polysecure…

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