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  • Writer's pictureMallika Gupta

Reflections: Why Electric Vehicles are Inherently Inequitable?

Daniel Sperling’s article ‘EVs: Approaching the tipping point’ perfectly embodies the arrogant disregard for

transparency and callous ignorance of equity issues that are commonly found in arguments presented by the White tech-bros of the world, proclaiming EVs as the one-stop solution for GHG emissions and subsequently, climate change. He proclaims that “When electricity generation is switched from fossil to renewable and nuclear energy, the climate benefits of electric vehicles are huge – almost a 100-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (Sperling, 2018, pp 13).” This is a blatantly inaccurate glazing over of facts, as it does not even attempt to account for the GHG emitted during manufacturing (almost double) or while operating geopolitical supply chains for importing steel, lead, plastics, aluminum, and various chemicals or during the toxic manufacturing of nanomaterials for electronics, which further contribute to the actual carbon footprint of EVs (Henderson, 2020).

Sperling argues that EVs are an ‘environmentally attractive’ option because, in addition to decarbonizing the electricity grid, they provide opportunities for technological and design innovations in the cars of the future. However, this argument inevitably perpetuates a car-centric culture and reinforces the idea that personal vehicles are the primary mode of transportation, which in turn distracts from a more holistic solution – the urgent need for investments in sustainable transportation including public transit, bike infrastructure, and walkable communities to address environmental and social justice issues (Henderson, 2020; Milavanoff et all, 2020). Further, Sperling describes lithium batteries as the ‘bane of electric vehicles since the beginning,’ but he does so in relation to their current cost and speed of production.

Such arguments do not take into consideration the excessive increase in demand for critical materials (Milavanoff et all, 2020), or the immense environmental and geopolitical implications of extractive mining outside of the US, and the ‘localized toxicity to human, freshwater, toxicity and eutrophication, metal depletion impacts and other problem shifting’ which arise from the production of these batteries (Henderson, 2020). Another ‘challenge’ put forth by Sperling is the consumers’ concerns for an EV’s range, which he proposes can be solved by building a ‘large visible network of charging stations.’ He argues that while ‘the possibility of home recharging is also attractive to most consumers,’ investments should also be made in public charging systems, even though ‘most people charge at home.’ These statements are problematic on so many levels, ranging from their disregard for anyone who is not a wealthy single-family homeowner to the shifting of public investment from improving existing infrastructure to building completely new amenities which will not only benefit an elite few but also take space and money away from non-drivers. Henderson has also argued that this could lead to a new form of gentrification, whereby ‘working-class people are displaced and alienated from gentrifying low-carbon centers transitioning to EVs (Henderson, 2020).’

However, an even more critical issue is the immense pressure this will put on ramping up electricity production, and ensuring that all of it comes from renewable sources- a feat that existing infrastructure cannot possibly achieve (Henderson, 2020 ; Milavanoff et all, 2020). It is essential to ask, who will suffer the ramifications when demands for renewable electricity exceed the existing supply? What accountability measures can be put in place to ensure that household needs for clean electricity remain unaffected, especially in vulnerable communities? Milovanoff et al report that in order to remain within a suitable emission budget, up to 351 million EVs would need to be on the road in the US (90% of the fleet). Lack of vehicle weight control and increasing share of light-truck can further exacerbate emission rates, and place additional demand on EV deployment (Milovanoff, 2020). Expansive EV deployment also required vast new infrastructure, none of which currently exists. Household charging access will increase demand for private parking. Increased demands for electricity could spike prices and disproportionately impact low-income communities (Henderson, 2020).

In light of all these arguments, one is forced to ask- Is reduced GHG emission during driving an adequate

argument for promoting EVs as a singular solution to climate change? What does such a push for EV

deployment take funds and resources away from? What happens to the waste produced from discarding

millions of fuel-based vehicles? Does the cost-benefit analysis truly add up?

Originally submitted as coursework for CYPLAN 217: Transportation Planning and Policy, Department of City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley.

Key Readings:

  1. Daniel Sperling, Lewis Fulton, and Vicki Arroyo (2020). Accelerating deep decarbonization in the US transportation sector. The Zero Carbon Consortium, Zero Carbon Action Plan. At

  2. Alexandre Milovanoff, Daniel Posen, and Heather MacLean (2020). Electrification of light-duty vehicle fleet alone will not meet mitigation targets. Nature Climate Change 10, no. 12: 1102-1107.

  3. Jason Henderson (2020). EVs are not the answer: a mobility justice critique of electric vehicle transitions. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 110(6), 1993-2010.


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