Geography class: The EV revolution. How green is your electric vehicle?
This article picked by a teacher with suggested questions is part of the Financial Times free schools access programme. Details/registration here.
Climate change — causes and mitigation strategies
Carbon combustion and impact
Energy pathways and security
Alternative energy sources and costs/benefits of renewable energy
Infrastructure developments and social inequality
Heath — positive effects from reductions in vehicle emissions
Changing spaces and places / changes to the built environment
Placemaking as a concept
Changing flows of people
The role of infrastructure development on regeneration
The concept of liveability
Sustainable urban development
Electric vehicles (EVs) do not emit CO2 or other undesirable emissions when they are used, in contrast to traditional internal combustion-engine vehicles that do. The shift to EVs is clearly a good step towards achieving net zero. However, there is a lot more to examine when considering how environmentally-friendly they are, particularly in comparison to the vehicles they are set to replace. It is relevant to consider the emissions associated with vehicle and energy production, rather than focusing purely on use. We must also consider what happens when an electric vehicle needs to be scrapped.
The resource will help you to explore these issues and more. You might like to consider the following questions as you work through the annotated diagrams. They are meant to be thought-provoking rather than requiring precise pre-determined answers, although you can try to quantify your conclusions and thoughts through further research in the links at the end of this article.
Click to view the article below and then answer the questions:
If someone buys an Electric Car and uses it to drive up to 1000 miles a year for 12 years, does the lack of emissions while it is used balance out the higher initial production, delivery and scrappage-related emissions and waste compared with using a traditional combustion-engine vehicle in the same way? Assume (perhaps incorrectly, as not enough is known yet) that after 12 years the EV battery pack is no longer fit for purpose and the cost of replacing it is uneconomic. Is there a minimum annual mileage at which EVs clearly provide overriding benefits when compared with the use of a traditional vehicle?
Is there an argument for saying that the extent to which EVs are helping us to reach net zero is different in different countries and regions, because the energy mix for electricity generation varies and is not always from renewable sources? How much does this matter? Is it also the case that location-based decision-making about benefits must be factored in, given some EVs are produced a long way from where they are sold and contribute to higher transport-to-market emissions?
Does the increase in EV use bring energy-production risks to relying on renewable sources? We are currently seeing lower-than-expected wind energy production is increasing the use of natural gas to generate electricity even before EVs are widespread. How will we significantly increase renewables to meet rising demand for electricity? Read this article to find out more about some of the challenges facing the UK and the world as whole.
To what extent might improvements in mining, battery, decommissioning and other technologies influence the degree to which our use of EVs becomes even more environmentally-friendly (in low mileage situations and more generally)?
What is being done to prepare for the ‘EV revolution’? What can you find out about the UK Government’s plans for developing charging infrastructure and meeting increasing electricity demands over the coming years?
Most internal combustion-engine vehicles are liable for annual road tax or Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) in the UK. Fuel is also taxed heavily by the government. EVs are currently exempt from both. ‘The sale of new fossil fuel cars will be banned from 2030, with hybrid car sales banned from 2035. On unchanged fuel duty and VED policies, once the entire vehicle stock has turned over, that will result in a revenue loss of 1.5 per cent of GDP (equivalent to £31 billion in today’s terms)’ – Office for Budget Responsibility, 2021. If fuel duty and VED policies do not change, will this predicted revenue loss limit the government’s ability to deliver net zero by other means? Do you think that the fuel duty and VED policies will have to change for EVs anytime soon? How will the road network be maintained if fuel duty and VED is not charged?
EVs are often exempt from local authority parking charges. Will their increasing use cause a loss in revenue that restricts their ability to deliver net zero through other local means, or leads to a loss of or reduction in other important services? For example, if a local authority faces a fall in revenue, will it slow the switch of its own fleet to EVs; might it have to reduce spending on sustainability or energy-saving initiatives; or will it have to cut other services that have a positive net zero effect (tree planting and maintenance, for example)? In the short term, local authorities may offset free parking for EVs by charging more for combustion-engine vehicles, but what will they do when most vehicles are electric? Will EV parking charges come back?
The government has been offering grants towards the purchase of EVs, albeit on a sliding scale, which further increases the initial costs it is bearing of the switchover. How influential have these grants been in encouraging the purchase of new EVs and what might happen if they are ultimately withdrawn? Are they still necessary and can we afford them?
Will all local authorities develop the necessary infrastructure equally or is there a risk that poorer areas will be left further behind, exacerbating social inequality? The government map of infrastructure and the IMD maps may help you with this.
Will the high initial cost of Electric Vehicles cause take-up to be unequal, with poorer areas potentially being exposed to higher levels of emissions from internal combustion engines for longer than more affluent areas that can make the switch more readily?
Will areas with more EVs have healthier populations as a result of lower local emissions where people live and work? This resource will help you investigate air quality further.
Is EV infrastructure sufficiently embedded into new-build planning, regeneration planning and associated sustainability requirements? Have a look for some area regeneration brochures online and also check your local authority planning policies to see where EV infrastructure is mentioned.
How might the effectiveness of EVs within a net zero strategy increase as technology improves further? What needs to improve?
By considering these questions with the resource, you have had an opportunity to think further about aspects of the shift to EVs that you might not have considered before. The shift to EVs clearly has a lot of benefits, but challenges remain in improving the extent to which the benefits completely overcome any negative, imperfect or inconclusive aspects of the EV revolution as a whole.
Watch this video about recycling lithium batteries;
Read this article: Electric vehicles: recycled batteries and the search for a circular economy.
Access the rest of the series here: The electric vehicle revolution.
Simon Pinfield, Royal Geographical Society