An electric vehicle being charged
MAP Issue Primer

Why EVs Alone Won’t Fix Climate Change

Electric cars aren’t enough: we need to drive less.

Why do we need walkable cities and better public transit? Won’t electric vehicles solve the climate issue with transportation?

No. Replacing more gas-powered cars with electric vehicles (EVs) will definitely help reduce climate pollution, but it won’t solve all our problems. The California Air Resources Board said it plainly in 2018: “California cannot meet its climate goals without curbing growth in single-occupancy vehicle activity.”

That’s why we also need to cut overall driving — measured by vehicle miles traveled, or VMT — by reforming land use, improving public transit, and investing in complete streets.

Land use reforms that allow for greater urban density help put more people within walking or biking distance of daily necessities, reducing the need for regular car trips. Urban density also makes robust public transit more viable, because transit can serve a greater number of riders in dense areas.

There are two key reasons why EVs alone won’t solve the climate crisis: the first is a problem of latency, and the second is pollution related to EVs themselves.

Let’s start with latency. What does that mean?

While sales of EVs have skyrocketed in recent years, it will be a very long time before all gas-powered vehicles are off the road. That’s the latency problem in a nutshell.

EVs today make up a small share of personal vehicles in the US, and researchers have estimated that gas-powered vehicles will continue to be sold into the 2040s. Even if 100 percent of new cars sold this year were EVs (rather than 22 percent), it would take until the late 2030s, at the earliest, for all vehicles on the road to be electric. Given that even California is going to allow the sale of gas-powered vehicles up to 2035, real-world latency will likely persist for significantly longer.

What about the pollution issue? How exactly do EVs pollute?

Tailpipe emissions are only one of the ways that private vehicles commute. Particulate matter released from tires, brakes, and road dust are also a major source of pollution — and while EVs don’t have tailpipes, they do have tires and brakes.
Similarly, EVs still need to get their energy from somewhere. Most EVs have large lithium-ion batteries, which have an intense manufacturing process. The mining of lithium, cobalt and nickel requires a huge amount of water and can produce toxic waste. Fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing process to heat the raw minerals to very high temperatures. As a result, building an EV “can produce around 80% more emissions than building a comparable gas-powered car.”

Saving the climate aside, are their other benefits to reducing VMT?

I’m glad you asked. Some of the other benefits include:

Shorter commute times. The nice thing about sidewalks, bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes and rail lines is that they’re much less prone to congestion than freeways. Reducing VMT means reclaiming some of the many hours that Americans spend stuck in traffic each year.

Sounds like you’re pretty anti-EV?

Not necessarily. As mentioned above, EVs are much better for the environment than gas-powered vehicles. Research has shown that EVs produce significantly less pollution than gas-powered vehicles. Many people will continue to need a personal vehicle for years to come, and EVs are the best alternative that currently exists. However, EVs alone cannot address the climate crisis. It is crucial to reduce all driving.

That sounds reasonable enough. Where can I learn more?

Here are some resources if you’d like to learn more:

This primer was prepared by Emily Jacobson and Spencer Richard.