Electric vehicle seen here crushing nature. Image: GM
A study published Wednesday shows just how bad the environmental damage will be if the United States switches to EVs while maintaining our current lust for large, personal vehicles. It’s not good, and the only way to avert disaster, according to researchers, is for Americans to give up their super car-centric lifestyles for accessible mass transit, walkable cities, and robust battery recycling programs.
Yup. We’re completely boned.
The Guardian had an exclusive first look at the research by the Climate and Community Project and University of California, Davis. Researchers compared how much lithium would be needed to keep the current number of cars on American roads, as well as what consumption would look like if we started robust public transit programs. The result? If we keep things up, the worldwide output of lithium would need to triple by 2050 just for U.S. consumption alone. We’d be eating up 483,000 tons of the stuff per year.
Even for mining, lithium is particularly water intensive and bad for the environment. Much of it is found in already dry regions like Australia, Chile and Nevada — places which are already suffering water shortages due to climate change. In South America, mines have poisoned indigenous peoples’ water and land, or merely snatched up lithium rich real estate for themselves.
To meet the international goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050 and keep lithium mining to an absolute minimum, Americans would need to completely change the way they live — a notoriously easy task. The Guardian has a very Guardian take on these findings:
The largest reduction will come from changing the way we get around towns and cities – fewer cars, more walking, cycling and public transit made possible by denser cities – followed by downsizing vehicles and recycling batteries.
It can be done: cities around the world have already begun to reduce car use in order to improve air pollution, road safety and quality of life. In Paris, car use declined nearly 30% from 2001 to 2015, while in London it fell by nearly 40%.
And despite the cultural attachment to driving, fewer cars on the roads would not mean a sacrifice in the quality of life, convenience or safety for Americans, according to coauthor Kira McDonald, an economist and urban policy researcher.
“If the policies, institutions, and spending patterns that shaped our existing car dependent infrastructure and built environment change, then alternative modes of transportation can be made far safer, far more convenient, and faster than cars – and immensely more pleasant and fun.”
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These solutions are not news to anyone living in a U.S. urban area, save maybe east coasters. We’ve known for decades nearly every aspect of commuter culture—from the cars we drive to the roads we drive them on—contributes to the deep divides of class and race in this country. And we’ve known for years that driving everywhere is not only polluting the planet, but making us more cut off from each other, unhealthy, deadly and overall miserable as well.
All those factors, and nothing has been done to save lives in the here and now, much less the future. This is the vision of a successful life sold to the American public for the last century. Such consumerist forces are still at play in development of infrastructure today. Think Elon Musk allegedly creating the whole ridiculous Hyperloop project just to try and deter high-speed rail in one of the largest markets for Teslas, California. Or the cities that keep uselessly expanding their freeways, despite everyone knowing darn well by this point that additional lanes never relieve traffic. At least car sales stay at a steady pace.
The Guardian pretty unfairly compares Paris and London to U.S. cities. These two ancient cities come with density and walkability built in as they were founded when the fastest a human could travel was on the back of a horse. They both have decades-old mass transit infrastructure and the political will to straight up ban cars from those cities centers. Tell someone living in Columbus, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Pittsburg or Detroit — whole cities built around car ownership with huge freeways running through them — that they must build walkable cities and decent public transit. Every aspect of our lives would radically change. Everything from how we arrange our municipalities to how we zone our cities and how people live their lives.
Always a popular opinion in the U.S., where whole segments of our population lost their minds over wearing a face covering to save their own lives. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done. I’d dearly love to own a car because I want one, not because I need one. I just think it is utterly, hopelessly, unlikely.