Electric Vehicles are Counterproductive to the Environmental Agenda

Electric vehicles have long been championed as clean alternatives to traditional internal combustion vehicles. It’s time to hit the brakes on that fallacy.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Climate change is rapidly accelerating. It is clear that the world’s current carbon-emitting lifestyles need to change, and governments worldwide need to work together to find a long-term solution. Many advocates assert that electric vehicles are part of the solution we need in order to have clean cities and a sustainable planet. Over the years, major incentive programs at the local, state, federal, and international levels have risen to the task of accomplishing this lofty goal. President Macron of France announced in July of 2017 that France would ban the sale of gas vehicles by 2040. Likewise, the U.S. federal government administers various subsidies and incentives for electric vehicles. The Energy Improvement and Extension Act, a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2008, grants the IRS authority to provide up to $7,500 in tax credit to buyers of electric vehicles. According to a 2016 UC Davis study, the credit has been highly successful in increasing electric vehicle sales.

However, this tax credit begins to phase out for certain cars once their manufacturers have sold more than 200,000 electric vehicles. Tesla was the first to hit this cap in July 2018, and General Motors followed in November of the same year. Both are now in their phase-out periods. As one would expect, calls to remove this cap to indefinitely prolong the tax credit to all manufacturers, regardless of total electric vehicle sales, have become more and more vocal. These proposals have received bipartisan support; both Democrat Representative Peter Welch of Vermont and Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada have introduced legislation to prolong or remove the 200,000 vehicle cap in their respective chambers of Congress.

But the widespread assumption that electric vehicles benefit both the environment and the economy is a huge misconception. Data from recent studies reveals that electric vehicles are not only worse for the environment compared to their traditional gas-powered counterparts, but that they also negatively affect low-income Americans and promote abhorrent human rights violations abroad.

Electric vehicles paradoxically have higher carbon emissions compared to newly developed internal combustion vehicles. A May 2018 Politico study found that when their production and charging emissions are combined, electric vehicles emit an average of 15 ounces per mile, three more than their new gas-powered counterparts. Unless cleaner electric batteries can be developed (and soon), internal combustion-fueled vehicles will continue to outpace them in environmental impact and pure energy efficiency.

This carbon discrepancy is rooted in electricity production. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that 63 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. in 2017 directly led to harmful carbon emissions. So while electric vehicles may not visibly emit while driving, they still create carbon emissions when they are manufactured and charged. Moving forward, it is possible that we could reform our electric grid and streamline the electric car assembly line in order to reduce carbon emissions. However, that day is unlikely to be in the near the future; meanwhile, these subsidies continue to encourage exactly what they were created to curb: carbon emissions.

Electric vehicle subsidies also place low-income Americans at a disadvantage. Current subsidies successfully encourage many people to buy electric vehicles instead of gas-powered cars. However, this enthusiasm for electric vehicles as popular products does not apply everywhere. A study published in 2012 by the Electric Vehicle Information Exchange found that the average electric vehicle driver falls into the 90th income percentile. According to a May 2018 Manhattan Institute report, Tesla drivers in particular have an average income of $293,000, putting them in the top two percent of Americans in terms of wealth. This disparity in electric vehicle owners’ income can be attributed to the 20-year cost of electric vehicle ownership: up to $30,000 more than gas vehicles, as explained by a 2016 study by Arthur D. Little.

Subsidies thus directly aid the rich and powerful instead of bringing the “benefits” of electric vehicles to all, as they were previously claimed to do. While the wealthy drive Teslas and other electric vehicles, middle and lower class Americans disproportionately drive gas-powered vehicles. Recent data available from the Congressional Budget Office reveals that the agency responsible for federal infrastructure, the Highway Trust Fund, is primarily funded by the federal gas tax. With a growing number of wealthy Americans driving electric vehicles, this infrastructure tax burden will increasingly fall on lower and middle-class Americans, further driving them to purchase and drive gas-powered vehicles. The electric vehicle tax credit is simply a tax break for the rich thinly disguised as progressive environmental policy.

Excessive support for electric vehicles is not simply a domestic problem; it directly leads to gross violations of human rights abroad. The Washington Post explained in September 2016 that 60 percent of the world’s cobalt—a key part of the lithium-ion batteries that fuel electric vehicles—originates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mining of this valuable metal directly funds the country’s devastating civil war in which the military has been found to carry out inhumane attacks on civilians. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Labor lists Congolese cobalt as a material produced by child labor. In a separate article published in December of 2016, the Washington Post explains that lithium mining in South America requires gargantuan amounts of water. This mining operation has exacerbated existing water shortages in Argentina and Chile, hurting the livelihoods of native people, the rightful owners of the land.

In supporting the production and sale of electric vehicles, we significantly increase the strife of impoverished people worldwide. The U.S. could pass future legislation requiring the ethical sourcing of these materials. But the potential cost of such regulation—the almost complete collapse of the market for electric vehicles—makes it unlikely that it will ever come to fruition.

Electric vehicle subsidies do not help anyone except for those in the highest tax brackets. They put everyday diesel-driving Americans at an economic disadvantage. They directly fuel human rights violations and instability in developing regions. Rather than accelerating electric vehicle subsidies, it’s time to park all of them for good before we all crash into a dead end.