Are electric cars really a climate game changer?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Biden signed an executive order last week setting a target for zero-emissions vehicles to make up at least half of all cars sold in the United States by 2030. “There’s no turning back,” he said of the transition from gas-powered vehicles to cleaner electric vehicles (EVs). “The question is whether we’ll lead or fall behind in the race for the future.”

Biden highlighted electric cars as a key element of his broader mission to help decarbonize the U.S. economy in order to reduce the effects of climate change. To bolster that effort, he has reinstated fuel efficiency and emissions standards that were rolled back during the Trump administration. Biden called for $174 billion to promote EVs, including building 500,000 charging stations, as part of the massive infrastructure proposal currently being negotiated in Congress.

The president isn’t alone in seeing electric cars as the vehicles of the future. Several states, including California, set goals to ban sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035. The U.K. and the European Union made similar plans. Car manufacturers are following the lead of governments. General Motors, the largest car company in America, said earlier this year it intends to have an all-electric fleet of vehicles in the next 15 years.

Why there’s debate

There’s little doubt that the market for electric vehicles is growing. There is debate, however, over whether zero-emissions vehicles can deliver on the promise to dramatically curb climate change.

Advocates point to studies that show the significant difference between the carbon emissions released by gas vehicles and electric cars, even in cases where the electric vehicles are charged using a fossil-fuel-powered grid. Industry experts also say the market for electric vehicles will continue to grow as technological improvements — particularly better batteries — drive prices down, increase driving distances and make charging infrastructure more accessible.

Skeptics worry that too much faith is being put into a theoretical electric vehicle revolution. Though electric vehicles are cleaner on the road than gas-powered cars, the production carries its own toll, including destructive mining needed to extract minerals for batteries. Others say even a rapid transition to electric cars would be insufficient unless it’s accompanied by equally aggressive moves across the transportation industry and the broader economy.

There’s also the fact that electric cars can only make an impact if enough people drive them. For all the excitement, electric vehicles only made up 2 percent of new car sales in the U.S. in 2019. That percentage is likely to rise in the coming years, but some experts doubt that the shift will be fast enough to offset the harm caused by the millions of low-efficiency SUVs and trucks that will be sold. Others say widespread electric vehicle adoption can only happen if massive investments are made to ensure that low- and middle-income people have a reliable place to charge their cars.

Perspectives

Supporters

America’s climate goals are out of reach unless we switch to electric cars

“Taking bold steps to cut the carbon pollution generated by burning fossil fuels in internal combustion engines can achieve real progress. Zero-emission vehicles are an essential part of how we can meet the challenge of climate change. But we have to take ambitious action now.” — Carol M. Browner, The Hill

Auto manufacturers are committed to making the transition

“The clean-energy transition needs private-sector leadership as much as it needs government action. Having the auto companies involved in this effort will create new urgency and build momentum among utility companies to quickly and economically make the grid more sustainable.” — Jody Freeman, New York Times

Shifting away from gas-powered cars would be a major win for the climate

“The United States can begin to take the biggest single step of any nation in the fight against climate change. The President must set tough rules that restore, and later strengthen, tailpipe emissions standards that President Donald Trump trashed while putting us on course to phase in a new car fleet that is 100% electric by 2030.” — Dan Becker and James Gerstenzang, CNN

Electric vehicles are becoming more desirable every year

“Falling battery prices mean that larger electric cars will reach price parity with their fossil-fuel counterparts in the U.S. and Europe in 2022, with parity reached in most other segments and regions by the end of the decade. Improvements in battery technology are set to boost potential driving ranges. More importantly, a global rollout of public fast-charging points should dissipate concerns about being stuck for hours. Analysts predict that EVs will prove more reliable, since they have many fewer parts.” — Elisabeth Behrmann, Bloomberg

Electric vehicles will be even more impactful as the power grid becomes greener

“It’s very important that more renewable electricity generation capacity is added to the grid each year, than coal generation capacity. Nowadays, it’s much easier to build large scale solar or offshore wind compared to building new fossil fuel power plant. What we see is more renewable electricity coming into the grid all over the world.” — Florian Knobloch, economist and environmental scientist, to CNBC

Even without a cleaner power grid, electric vehicles will make a huge difference

“Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are dramatically cleaner than gasoline cars under virtually all circumstances, no matter how dirty the electric grid in which the BEVs operate.” — Juan Cole, Common Dreams

Skeptics

Mining for electric vehicle components could devastate the ocean

“The ocean is the place on the planet where we know least about what species exist and how they function. This is like opening a Pandora’s box. ... We’re concerned this won’t do much good for climate change, but it will do irreversible harm to the ocean.” — Douglas McCauley, marine scientist, to Los Angeles Times

Making gas cars more efficient would have a bigger impact

“To cut carbon from cars sooner rather than later, it is crucial to greatly improve the fuel economy of the gasoline vehicles that will still be sold in the years ahead. ... At the end of the day, total emissions from the entire vehicle market matter much more for the planet than green niches glowing in the spotlight.” — John DeCicco, Conversation

The emphasis should be on ending dependence on cars entirely

“Modest changes to land use and transit to transform cities into virtually car-free environments would be a better approach to electrifying every car in America. Better transit and more walkable and bikeable environments would mean fewer cars would be needed overall. Without these changes, a climate catastrophe would be difficult to avoid.” — Andrew J. Hawkins, The Verge

The transition won’t happen on its own. Massive investment is needed

“Vehicle electrification will produce disappointing near-term carbon emissions unless the U.S. fleet turns over far faster, and dealers sell far more new plug-ins, than would occur if consumers were left on their own. There may be ways to change that — but probably not without spending lots of taxpayer money.” — Charles Lane, Washington Post

Cars only account for a small share of emissions

“The internal combustion engine gets a bad rap. Personal vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel account for less than 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and that percentage continues to fall as both American and foreign car manufacturers focus on improving fuel economy to reduce tailpipe emissions. Focusing on a single transportation mode such as EVs may discourage innovation and competition that can bring about greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at a lower cost.” — Bernard L. Weinstein, The Hill

Electric vehicles are impractical for a large share of the population

“About half of U.S. vehicles lack a reserved off-street parking space at an owned residence where a charger could be installed. Adoption may be more difficult for renters as well as for residents of dense cities who already struggle with parking logistics and aren’t enthusiastic about adding charging logistics to their daily tasks.” — Jeremy Michalek, MarketWatch

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in “The 360”? Send your suggestions to the360@yahoonews.com.

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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