16 June 2024

The Challenge of Communication; Do Electric Vehicles (EVs) Save the Planet ?

I imagine that the title of this note has some keyboards hissing with steam; the second half. However it’s the first part that this is really about, the reference to EVs is simply a convenient vehicle to demonstrate a point.

I’ve been observing lately that people spend a lot of time arguing and debating things they actually agree on. The challenge is that the language and terms used are sometimes such that the ideas themselves get lost. Take “saving the planet” as an example. Only a very odd person would not want to have the planet continue and live in a clean and resource conscious world; however, change the term to something like “going green” and things start to get ambiguous. It’s worth taking the time to clarify what it is you’re actually discussing.

As an example, when talking to people I’ve found that some who would adhere strongly to a “green countenance” don’t think that EVs are necessarily a good idea and when you get through to the core idea, people who seem to be on different sides of something actually find they agree.

How could a “climate CO2 sceptic” and a “climate activist” find they agree on something like EVs ? Well once you get past the terms and labels used in the media, government and big business it was pretty straight forward; they both thought that when viewing things from an environmental point of view EVs are not necessarily that “green” even though they are labelled as such by those involved in promoting them, and it was the environment that they agreed on.

The paragraphs below are not an exhaustive discussion, but rather some highlights to add some context.

The environmental positives of EVs: There are no exhaust pipe emissions (CO2, water vapour, NOX, etc) and there are definitely places where that is helpful. Softer factors such as lack of engine noise also have value. There is also less maintenance required for the motor and drive system when compared to a traditional vehicle.

The environmental negatives of EVs: Usually a new car has to be produced, so any government scheme that incentivises an early retirement of a working vehicle that has already paid a large proportion of its carbon footprint is a bad start. However most of the negative aspects centre around the manufacture and extra weight of the battery.

The battery materials require significant mining activity, some of which (cobalt for example) come with some ethical questions. Others (such as lithium) create significant pollution. The mining, shipping (to place of production), manufacture, and shipping of finished products are all done using fossil fuels. Due to the weight of the battery, the EV itself is significantly heavier than its traditional counterpart, usually 20%-30%; for a typical car like a VW Golf that’s around an extra 300 KG (or like having three burly passengers permanently in the car). This can mean a greater mile for mile impact on tyres and road surfaces from an EV than from a traditional vehicle (although any vehicle that has regenerative braking technology won’t transmit the negative impact to the brake pads). The extra weight would surely increase the effects of a collision too ?




Lastly there are the demands placed on the power grid, and the expansion needed to create a charging network for the vehicles. Even if this all came from local renewables such as solar panels on a home’s roof, it would still require millions of tons of additional copper cable and other components to implement. In reality not every building can have such things (nor indeed off street charging points) and there is of course the need to charge when on the move.

So do EVs save the planet ? It’s certainly worth thinking over and even some climate activists don’t think that they do.

Coming back to the point; the challenge of communication - or rather the challenge of communicating clearly, it’s important to clarify exactly what you’re talking about and not rely on ambiguous labels; “I want to save the environment” and “I want to go green” may not mean the same thing (and when it comes to EVs and the like, are we clear what we’re asking for, and are councils spending money on what we actually want ?).