Respected Journal of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: Electric Cars – Unclean at Any Speed
Here’s an article that is already driving up the discussion about the true pollution-fighting value of electric cars: Unclean at Any Speed, Electric cars don’t solve the automobile’s environmental problems.
No, this isn’t coming from some radical anti-green group’s blog. It just appeared in the respected IEEE Journal, the primary monthly publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. This article explores a potentially amazing and unfortunate truth that the total life-cycle construction and operation of electric cars is essentially no more environment-friendly than conventional, petroleum-fueled vehicles.
A major part of the problem is production of the special materials required to make electric cars (rare earth magnets and lithium-based batteries) poses significant climate problems. Both mining the raw materials and manufacturing the finished machines is apparently much harder on the environment that the manufacture of a conventional auto.
Along the way, author Ozzie Zehner points out something that needs to be fully understood about research in the climate area. In talking about how conclusions in reports on the environmental friendliness of electric cars vary so widely, Zehner says:
“Why is the assessment so mixed? Ultimately, it’s because this is not just about science. It’s about values, which inevitably shape what questions the researchers ask as well as what they choose to count and what they don’t. That’s true for many kinds of research, of course, but for electric cars, bias abounds, although it’s often not obvious to the casual observer.”
I suspect that the same concern applies much more widely in the climate/environmental studies area. Values can overshadow the science.
Climate study doesn’t lend itself to truly random sample type research. We simply do not have another “world” where we can go pump up the Carbon Dioxide levels to see what happens when everything else stays constant. Instead of random studies, much climate work relies on correlations (Carbon Dioxide levels go up, earth temperatures go up, so we assume the first causes the second). However, it’s a fundamental rule of statistics that correlations can never prove cause and effect relationships (maybe something else also changed, like sunspot activity, that is the real cause of the temperature change).
In any event, proving he is not afraid to go where few have gone before, Zehner points out that most electric power station emissions occur away from upscale urban/suburban areas. Likewise, the environmental problems from mining nuclear and fossil fuels mostly occur in rural areas, too. Thus, asks Zehner:
“Do electric cars simply move pollution from upper-middle-class communities in Beverly Hills and Virginia Beach to poor communities in the backwaters of West Virginia and the nation’s industrial exurbs? Are electric cars a sleight of hand that allows peace of mind for those who are already comfortable at the expense of intensifying asthma, heart problems, and radiation risks among the poor and politically disconnected?”
This is potent, class warfare “stuff.” And, I must re-emphasize, this isn’t coming from some wacko organization’s blog, either.
It makes you wonder what else we are being told about green issues that might just not be right, either.
In any event, a lot of the great things you’ve heard about electric cars could be wrong. The primary journal of the nation’s leading organization for electrical engineers was willing to publish an article that says so.