It is a global phenomenon, says Anable, and she sees transport as a collective failure, whether in relation to the climate crisis or other criteria, including air quality and obesity.
The case for and against EVs
While they bring some emissions benefits and would also have a big impact on air pollution and noise pollution, there are downsides to EVs. One commonly voiced concern is the electricity demands. There is no doubt that a surge in uptake would put pressure on the grid – one estimate is for an additional annual 18 gigawatts to be needed by 2025 (to put that into context, the planned new nuclear facility at Hinkley Point would generate 3.2 gigawatts).
Clearly, the electricity mix has a major effect on the carbon emissions of EVs. However, user or supplier managed charging can be effective for balancing the load, whereby the consumer or power provider manage the charging to take advantage of times of low use, typically overnight. Tests by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) showed both models worked and that consumers were positive about them, says Dr Neale Kinnear, TRL’s head of behavioural science.
There’s then the question of the minerals needed for the EV batteries. David Wong, senior technology and innovation manager at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), does not believe lithium will be the problem but rather cobalt, as the demand for this is also from smartphones, laptops and consumer electronics. The bluish-grey element will be in short supply from 2025, even with developments to reduce its use in batteries, according to a report last year from the Joint Research Centre, scientific advisors at the European Commission. Most cobalt – almost two-thirds – comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with severe environmental and human rights issues.
Although there might be enough lithium to go round, it also comes with environmental and other costs. It is found in the brine of salt flats. Holes are drilled and it is pumped to the surface to evaporate in ponds. A Friends of the Earth report states: “The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production.”
What’s stopping consumers from buying electric?
Meanwhile, plug-in car sales are more or less static and eight out of ten are for hybrids (with SUVs the most popular here too). With hybrids, CREDS’s Anable points out, there is not yet the data to tell what proportion of their mileage is electric.
The market share for all plug-in car sales in the UK in the year-to-date is 2.71 per cent, says SMMT’s Wong. “Except China and Norway, we all have our work cut out.”