When it comes to addressing structural problems fueling climate change, it can be seductive to applaud measures that appear bold and disruptive. But look a bit deeper into some of the ideas currently proposed in Congress and it’s easy to see that often a solution brings up its own set of problems.
A perfect example can be found in the electric vehicle (EV) provisions of the bipartisan infrastructure plan that will soon be considered in the House.
A key aspect of the plan brings the Biden administration one step closer to reaching its goal of significant federal investment in new EV charging infrastructure. The plan allocates $7.5 billion toward EV infrastructure and is closely linked to the president’s broader efforts on climate.
This funding is premised on the idea that better EV infrastructure will accelerate mass EV adoption to significantly lower greenhouse emissions by replacing combustion vehicles. President Biden’s recent executive order mandating that half of new car sales be electric within nine years underscores his administration’s dedication to electrifying transportation.
EVs are a critical part of the net-zero economy equation, which is why local policymakers in states like Colorado and Minnesota are proposing measures to promote EV infrastructure and sales. What’s not to love about the U.S. government aggressively incentivizing the market to move away from polluting internal combustion engines?
Unfortunately increasing EV deployment does not come without downsides.
As currently constructed, the broader environmental benefits to widespread EV adoption remain murky. Despite clear carbon emissions advantages, environmental externalities and human rights concerns plague the EV supply chain, especially around mining for battery-related minerals.
At the most basic level, we need to shift our electric grid to be more sustainable before widespread EV adoption if we are to realize the environmental benefits from technology. What good is switching to an EV if the power fueling it is still polluting? With 19% of U.S. electricity still coming from coal, increases in electricity demand due to fleet electrification may lead to more coal use in the short term.
Possible Increase in Carbon Emissions
Indeed, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission speculates that a full fleet transition to EVs will require American electricity generating capacity to double by 2050. This creates a significant burden for power providers trying to replace fossil fuels with low- and zero-carbon sources. If we are not careful as we electrify transportation, a rush to EV adoption may increase carbon emissions, shifting them from the transportation sector to electricity generation.
Beyond this basic but essential point about the power grid, current models of EVs are nothing short of a monument to the extractive mining industry. For example, a recent International Energy Agency report explains that the mineral requirements for EVs are profoundly different from those of traditional vehicles, with a typical EV requiring “six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car.”
Another significant problem is battery recycling, which Wired Magazine has labeled an “e-waste time bomb.” The world’s lithium-ion production capacity has already increased tenfold to meet EV demand and lithium-ion recyclers are still working through significant challenges.
National Security Concerns
In addition to these concerning environmental questions, there is a pressing national security concern: China’s mining industry mines about half of the world’s rare-earth elements, and refines about 80% of all rare-earths mined globally. Energy analyst Robert Bryce has testified that electrifying just half the U.S. fleet “would require about nine times the world’s current cobalt production, about four times global neodymium output, about three times global lithium production, and about two times world copper production.”
Policies that push a rush toward EV adoption will only make the U.S. more dependent on China and its supply of energy minerals, if they are not combined with a commitment to sustainable sourcing and increased federal R&D investment for breakthrough clean battery and recycling technologies.
A live national poll of 2,000 likely voters, conducted in July by the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy and Ragnar Research Partners, underscores that this issue matters to Americans. An overwhelming majority of respondents, 76%, support increased federal investment in clean tech innovation to maintain U.S. global leadership and competitiveness with China.
On the human rights front, EV battery dependency on Chinese rare-earths is deeply concerning. The Chinese government is well-known to subsidize labor costs with slavery. Policies to accelerate EV adoption must address this human rights concern head on, ensuring that our manufacturers are doing all they can to eradicate forced labor as they source components from China.
Energy is not good only because it is clean. Good energy is energy that improves quality of life without diminishing it, and that includes human rights considerations. What good is it to save the earth and lose our souls?
Diplomatic finesse will be critical when it comes to working with China on a supply chain for rare-earth minerals, but working with countries like Vietnam and Brazil—who also have large deposits of these important materials—should be a priority for the U.S. government. The U.S. should leverage its considerable resources to ensure that the growing EV supply chain be as diverse and environmentally responsible as possible.
Basket of Fuel- and Tech-Neutral Policies
Rather than focusing only on EV infrastructure, lawmakers are better advised to support a basket of fuel- and technology-neutral policies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions instead of placing mandates on consumers with the view that EVs are single-source solution.
Mandating a specific technology, like EVs, versus environmental outcomes, such as vehicles with net-zero emissions, will diminish innovation in clean transportation without guaranteeing reduced emissions.
Biden and local policymakers are right to develop policies to increase EV adoption, but we cannot overlook the environmental and national security consequences presented by accelerating EV deployment. These challenges are addressable if, rather than view EVs as a panacea for climate change, we encourage clean tech innovation across all vehicle and generation technologies. That’s not only the practical approach, but the best one for national security, the environment, and American taxpayers.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Sarah E. Hunt is the CEO and president of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. Previously, she ran clean energy and climate change programs at the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Niskanen Center.
Jeremy Hurewitz is a policy adviser to the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy on national security issues.