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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Electric vehicles can’t go too far in reducing our use of fossil fuel

One of the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a jump in the price of crude oil. The high price of oil has led to renewed calls for the use of electric vehicles (EVs) to lower the human dependence on fossil fuels which pollute the environment.

Expressivism, which Steven Rhoads defines in his book The Economist’s View of the World as “the tendency of many to support all environmental initiatives (or to oppose them) so as to show their values" has been on display. People who already own EVs have been talking about how they don’t get impacted by rising fuel prices and at the same time are doing their bit for the environment. Individuals in the business of managing other people’s money have also used this opportunity to talk up the investing potential of companies making EVs and other inputs that go into their making.

Electric vehicles don’t run on fossil fuels like petrol, diesel or CNG for that matter. Hence, first-order analysis suggests that every new EV means less fossil fuel being burnt and that being good for the global cause of climate action.

Of course, EVs are powered by electricity, which is primarily generated from coal, natural gas, water flows, nuclear fission, solar energy and wind. Of this, coal and natural gas are fossil fuels. Hence, while more people driving EVs seems like a good thing, if the electricity being used to drive these vehicles is produced by fossil fuels, we are just moving the problem elsewhere.

In the Indian case, in 2010-11, 65% of our power generation capacity depended on fossil fuels. In 2020-21, this was down to 61.4%. Further, in 2010-11, the country’s generation capacity that depended on coal stood at 54%. It was down to 53% in 2020-21. In absolute terms, coal-based power capacity jumped from 93,918 megawatts to 202,675 megawatts. Clearly, more coal is being burnt to produce power now. In fact, half the electricity across the world is still produced by burning coal and natural gas.

Further, in India’s case, the proportion of installed capacity that depends on wind and the sun to produce power has gone up, and now amounts to a little over one-fifth of our overall capacity, against 8% in 2014-15.

Nonetheless, as Bill Gates writes in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: “The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, and we don’t have affordable batteries that can store city sized amounts of energy for long-enough." Let’s say due to a storm, the city of Tokyo doesn’t have access to power produced from such renewable sources as the wind and sun for three days. To tackle a prospective situation like this, renewable power would have to be stored in batteries for use as and when needed. Gates estimates that more than 14 million batteries would be needed so that Tokyo can have enough power for three days. And “that’s more storage capacity than the world produces in a decade."

Further, as Vaclav Smil writes in How the World Really Works, it is worth remembering that electricity accounts for only 18% of global energy consumption. Indeed, most energy produced is consumed in the production of what Smil calls the four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics and ammonia. As he writes: “In 2019, the world consumed about 4.5 billion tonnes of cement, 1.8 billion tonnes of steel, 370 million tonnes of plastics, and 150 million tonnes of ammonia, and they are not readily replaceable by other materials—certainly not in the near future or on a global scale." The mass production of these four pillars “depends heavily on the combustion of fossil fuels."

Interestingly, the world needs fossil fuels even to generate renewable power. In his other book Numbers Don’t Lie, Smil writes that if wind power is to supply 25% of global demand for electricity by 2030, it would require around 400 million tonnes of steel. To make this, a fossil fuel equivalent of more than 600 million tonnes of coal would be required.

Or take the electric car. In How the World Really Works, Smil writes that a typical lithium car battery weighs 450kg. It has “about 11 kilograms of lithium, nearly 14 kilograms of cobalt, 27 kilograms of nickel, more than 40 kilograms of copper, and 50 kilograms of graphite—as well as about 181 kilograms of steel, aluminium, and plastics."

Data from Statista.com tells us that around 74.9 million cars were sold in 2019, before the pandemic struck. If electric cars are to become the order of the day, these are the kind of numbers we are looking at. This would mean the need for a massive expansion in the extraction of all the metals that go into the making of car batteries. And that would, in turn, mean massive use of fossil fuels. As Smil puts it: “Generating smoothly rising forecasts of future electric vehicle ownership is one thing; creating these new material supplies on a mass global scale is quite another."

To conclude, moving the world away from fossil fuels is not just complicated, it’s complex. Of course, the complexity goes out of the window when such an issue goes mass market and people want to show that they are worried about the crisis of global warming.

As David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, people are “mesmerized by the threat" of climate change “without ever perceiving it clearly".

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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