Why 'the same but green' is not enough to solve the environmental crisis

Transitioning to new technology is never without downsides and teething troubles. And that's true even when the technology is as positive and necessary as electric cars (something I am very much in favour of).


Because there will always be hidden costs that we need to recognise, which help us see the bigger picture. Specifically, that a 'same but green' model of behaviour - in this case, switching petrol for electric - won't be enough to solve the environment crisis. Like it or not, more fundamental behaviour change is necessary.


With electric cars, the hidden cost we have to take into consideration is lithium; a core component of rechargeable batteries. In a recent edition of their Long Read, the Guardian doesn't shy away from this in it's title:

"The curse of 'white oil': electric vehicles' dirty secret"
Rockwood lithium plant on the Atacama salt flat, Chile. Photograph: Iván Alvarado/Reuters

Let's be clear here. The extraction and burning of fossil fuels has to stop, given it's negative impact on the global ecosystem. And I would rather my next car was electric than petrol. But lithium is also a raw material that has to be mined and processed, with all the ecological downside this brings (see image).


And from a European production perspective there is an associated carbon cost, as all battery grade lithium is currently imported from Australia and other far-flung locations. There are deposits in Europe that are being explored, which would simplify logistics and reduce costs (carbon and otherwise). Unfortunately, with all the negative impacts on the local environment that mining brings. As with wind farms and solar parks, there is an argument for the greater social good outweighing these local concerns. But there is always something more invasive and permanent about mining. You can remove a wind turbine after all.


What about battery recycling? In future this will undoubtedly play an important part. But it's a challenging process that's undeveloped and expensive. Costs will come down as the market develops and efficiencies increase. Currently though, it's cheaper to dig lithium out of the ground than to reclaim it from old batteries. And even if recycling was working at full capacity, the lithium that was been mined over the last decade would only meet around 70% of requirements based on the forecast for electric car sales by 2025.


Which presents something of a conundrum, and points to a bigger question about the behaviour changes needed to undo the climate emergency.


So yes, we need to ween ourselves off fossils fuels. And yes, electric vehicles will play a part in this. But what the lithium question demonstrates is that, like many aspects of our lives, a green status quo isn't the answer. A sustainable future is not, sadly, as simple as substituting out non-green options and replacing them with green ones. This is (currently at least) a pipe dream that doesn't address the wider question of production and consumption, and the individual behaviours that come along for the ride.


Which is why it's not enough to just switch all vehicles to electric. Even ignoring the transition downsides, it can't off set the fact that current legislation and timings focus only on new car sales whilst doing nothing about the old vehicles that will remain active and polluting for many years to come. In the UK, pure-electric cars will account for 6% of total sales in 2020, but only 0.3% of cars on the road. And even those new green vehicles have a carbon cost associated with their manufacture (one that is, for the moment, potentially greater than the cost of making a traditional petrol vehicle).


Hard as it may be to accept, we need to recognise that the real enemy here isn't just the internal combustion engine, it's mass individual hyper mobility per se. And that the real answer to a sustainable future lies in behaviour change not car change: less travel (of all kinds...air in particular) in fewer vehicles (however powered), and a switch to car sharing, green public transport, remote working and other radical solutions.


It won't be popular, but this less/fewer model, an economy of enough, must be central to solving the environmental crisis for the foreseeable future...potentially even our life times...if things have any chance of changing for the better. But it can be done, we just need to be the (behaviour) change we want to happen.



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© 2020 Something's Happening by Jon Howard

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