Frontiers: A joint project of SCORAI and Hot or Cool

It is misleading for any future mobility advocate to assume that we can adopt widescale electric vehicles in future without radically and rapidly changing our entire approach to transportation and provisioning systems for mobility. Here’s why I said this in my opening keynote at the UN World Urban Forum:


1. There is no credible scientific assessment supporting the unlimited availability of resource stocks needed for electric cars to replace the internal combustion engine at current and growing rates of global private-car ownership. On top of that, the energy intensity and global-heating emissions associated with producing electric vehicles contradict the capitalist pipedream that every Chinese, Cameroonian and Cambodian will drive around like a Californian. This electric-car high-speed chase ends in an ecological crash!

We need to reduce the car fleet in industrialized countries and find a completely new model of meeting increasing mobility needs in industrializing economies.

2. The pollution and environmental destruction from mining resources needed to manufacture electric cars, and the fact that most rare materials are located in conflict zones, means that negative impacts are exported to often underdeveloped regions and highlight neo-colonialist tendencies of extractive economic growth.

The higher the demand for critical rare materials, the greater the ecological destruction, inequality, and geopolitical violence resulting from extraction, trade and distribution in order to accelerate private electric car mobility.

3. And yet, we do not and cannot recycle as much as technology priests have mislead the public imagination. There are physical limits to what can be recycled at scale; modern composite materials and alloys are getting increasingly too complex to efficiently recycle; collection infrastructure is lacking and rates are low; and overconsumption causes rebound effects which cancel out improved vehicle efficiency.

Even in a perfect circular economy, there are physical limits to how many cycles any material can undergo, and recycling demands additional inputs in energy and virgin resources.  Quite often, when we talk of recycling, we actually mean downcycling – in continuously degrading material cycles.

4. Socially, an electric car culture is still a car-sick culture; being trapped in a traffic jam with electric cars does not feel any better than in a traffic jam with traditional cars, and streets filled with electric cars are just as uninviting and dangerous for children as streets filled with petrol cars.

5. Healthwise, there are the often-ignored health risks related to particulate matter emissions from non-exhaust sources such as wear and tear from use of tires and brakes, and from road surfaces!

6. Cars, electric or otherwise, are visual markers of socio-economic inequality, and drivers of aspirational consumption. Mobility design for private cars creates infrastructure lock-ins, consumes disproportionate amounts of government budget as well as public spaces, often at the expense of other public or universal services (health, education, leisure…). A private electric car mobility system is tantamount to privatization of public resources, and a continuation of the perverse economic trend of transferring the fair share of the poor to the already rich.

Horses disappeared from streets in cities not because all the horses had died. Nowadays with the accelerating pace of change, the cascade can be even faster. Municipalities and investors need to plan for physical and social realities, and immediately put in place plans to rapidly phase out private-car dependent provisioning systems! This would include rethinking urban planning and zoning laws to reduce demand for transportation, investments in public transportation and ridesharing systems, accelerated decarbonisation of the energy system, and promotion of active travel modes. Nothing less than a rapid and large-scale reduction in car use is necessary to stay within Paris Agreement-compatible carbon limits and avoid high energy and resource demand.