Zero-Emissions vehicles won’t solve the climate crisis, UVic expert says

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

Environmental instructor weighs in on how electric vehicles measure up as an environmental solution

An electric car charging station, photo by Michael Marais via Unsplash.
Photo by Michael Marais via Unsplash.

With gas prices soaring and the climate crisis unfolding around us, consumer interest in electric vehicles is expanding in B.C. Increasing the number of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) on the road is a major facet of CleanBC, the province’s climate action plan — but are ZEVs really going to save us from climate catastrophe, or could they just make the situation worse?

In an emailed interview with the Martlet, University of Victoria Environmental Studies sessional instructor Nick Montgomery discussed whether transitioning from combustion engines to electric vehicles (EVs) would be an effective climate catastrophe solution.

 “I think EVs are attractive to some people because they are presented as a ‘solution’ that doesn’t require changing very much,” Montgomery writes. “Mainstream climate responses are heavily focused on technological innovations that will reduce carbon emissions, and EVs are part of that focus. 

“But climate catastrophe is a symptom of a much deeper problem that is rooted in exploiting land and people. The system is rapidly eroding topsoil, poisoning watersheds, deforesting the planet, and making us all work until we die. EVs aren’t a solution to those problems, and may even legitimize new rounds of extraction.” 

Montgomery points to Canada as an example of this — the federal government is positioning itself as an international leader in mining materials that are necessary for ZEV manufacturing, which means reframing mining as a “climate solution.”

Transportation is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in B.C., accounting for approximately 40% of the province’s annual emissions total according to the provincial government. While getting more ZEVs on the road might help bring down emissions, it could create more problems elsewhere. 

“There are debates about whether there’s even enough nickel or cobalt or lithium to create all these EVs, but the deeper problem is the obsession with maintaining the extractive world we’re living in,” Montgomery explains. “Instead of asking whether enough minerals can be mined fast enough, I’m interested in how we can recreate a world where we’re not ripping stuff out of the Earth at all to sustain ourselves.”

In his email, Montgomery points out that resisting extractivism and living sustainably is not a “new” or “fringe” idea. It’s how most people have lived throughout human history, and many people continue to maintain those ways, “including Indigenous Peoples whose landbases are under attack to mine minerals for EVs.”

The province claims that ensuring more vehicles are powered by clean fuels is “one of the most important steps we can take to reduce our carbon footprint.” CleanBC wants to put 500 000 new light duty ZEVs and 140 000 hybrids on the road by 2030 to create a cleaner transportation system and improve air quality. 

When I asked Montgomery if he thinks that B.C. relies too heavily on ZEVs in the province’s climate plan, Montgomery wrote, “To me, the important work is happening with grassroots efforts to resist extractive industrial projects and sustain other ways of life.  … meaningful solutions will come from everyday people rooted in relationships of mutual aid, trust, and figuring things out together.”

As climate change continues to worsen globally, Montgomery points out that “We are in this mess because of a system that sustains itself by exploiting land and people, and we need systems built on reciprocal, non-dominating relationships.” 

As ZEVs are part of extractive infrastructure and require the exploitation of land and people to be manufactured, Montgomery thinks they might not be as effective a solution as the province touts them to be. 

An electric car might save you from emptying your wallet at the pumps, but it likely won’t save the planet from the climate crisis. Would Montgomery buy an electric car?

“Maybe, but I wouldn’t think I was solving climate change by doing so!”