Are electric vehicles a solution or a distraction?


Electric Vehicles (EVs) are being proposed as a direct replacement for internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles as the solution to the problems they cause. This essay will explore the issues relating to ICE vehicles, what governments are doing to address this, the issues that EVs themselves present and alternatives that they may be distracting us from and why. The focus of the essay will be on cars within the UK as they account for 78% of the distances travelled and with distances increasing by 5.4 billion km per year from 2010 to 2019[9].

The problem with ICEs

Gas and small particle pollution

Human health

The European Union (EU) has over 30% of its oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions coming from road transport[12] and these have been shown to increase the severity and susceptibility of people to asthma[29]. There has been an improvement as UK road transport emissions of NOx have fallen by 77% between 1990 and 2017[24].

Carbon monoxide (CO), from the combustion of petrol, catalyses the production of photochemical smog[36] that can contain high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) such as benzene, that are human carcinogens and can cause airway inflammation and reduced lung function[11]. Again, this issue has been improving as UK road transport emissions of CO have fallen by 94% between 1990 and 2017[24].

Particulate matter (PM), categorised as PM10 (<10µm) and PM2.5 (<2.5µm) enters into sensitive parts of the lungs, and can aggravate or cause cardiovascular and lung diseases (such as chronic bronchitis[29] and cancers[11]). About 12% of the EU’s PM2.5 emissions come from road transport and particularly diesel vehicles[12]. From 1990 to 2017 PM10 and PM2.5 pollution declined, across the UK, by 46% and 57% respectively[24] with the same pattern being seen in the EU[12]. Air pollution remains a problem in cities, for example, during 2019 London had 3,600-4,100 deaths, equivalent to 61,800-70,200 life years lost[7], with other studies estimating higher numbers.


Gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide form part of a group of gases known as greenhouse gases (GHG) that drive climate change due to the greenhouse effect whereby they trap heat in the atmosphere by absorbing some outbound infrared radiation and re-radiating some of it to the Earth’s surface. Increases in GHG concentrations since the mid-1700s are unequivocally due to human activities[19].

The climate change they cause has a range of consequences that impact on the environment: temperature changes (predominantly warming and especially at the poles) with a shift of biospheres towards the poles, changes in precipitation patterns, more intense storms, sea-level rise (due to water expansion and melting ice caps), and ocean acidification[19].

Total EU emissions of GHG from road transport was 20% of all emissions in 2013 and are currently around 16% above the levels of 1990[12]. In the UK for 2019, ICE cars make up 16% of all GHG emissions and 61% of the GHG emissions from road transport[5].

As well as climate change NOx from road transport is involved in the production of acid rain[12].

Particulate pollution

In addition to the issues relating to these “tail-pipe” emissions there are also particulate emissions from vehicles because of abrasion of materials from the brakes, tyres, and road surface. These can end up in the marine environment with 2-17% of microplastic pollution in oceans coming from these sources based on estimates from a range of studies[6]. Brakes may be less of a problem for EVs as they can use regenerative braking rather than brake pads[22].

Governmental response

The UK government’s response is summarised within a ten-point plan[33] where the focus is very much on EVs are a solution. Point 4 refers to accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles with a headline commitment that from 2030 the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans will end. There is no recognition that over-consumption is the underlying problem, and the key objectives are to: “simultaneously create jobs, strengthen British industry, cut emissions, and continue travelling”, UK Government[33]. Point 5 references alternatives such as green public transport, cycling and walking.

There is a reluctance to upset the government’s core vote, however, with the correct information people can be led through difficult decisions and balance competing needs. The UK’s Climate Assembly report[18] shows how a typical sample of people think the UK should meet its net zero emissions commitment. The participants created packages of policies including ones that would be controversial on their own. The greatest support included: stopping the sale of ICE cars in 2030, stopping the sale of SUVs now, reduce traffic 2% per decade and no road building until 2045.

The problem with EVs


Though EVs are often labelled “zero emission” they are still responsible for emissions, for example, during manufacture and driving where the fuel mix of the electricity generation becomes key.

In the EU, the average EV car is 3x better than the equivalent conventional car and will be 4x better by 2030 as the EU decarbonises its energy generation[32]. Higher figures are quoted by the European Environment Agency[13] with EV cars having 17-30% lower emissions dropping to 73% lower in 2050, again due to fuel mix.

Value chain concerns

A value chain covers the step-by-step actions that take a product from conception to end use and beyond; it covers the production supply chain. Concerns have been raised regarding the value-chain around EVs and more specifically the production of lithium and cobalt used in the manufacture of batteries.


Demand for lithium, to be used in batteries, has risen from 18kt in 2010, to 87kt in 2017 and an estimated 509kt in 2025 when it will make up over half the global demand[25]. The primary sources of this metal are Australia and Bolivia where concerns have been raised over political stability and corruption that threatens supplies[30].

As demand increases concerns are raised about the amount that is left to mine and the consequences of exploiting it. The world terrestrial lithium resources are estimated at 86Mt, 25% of which (21Mt) are known reserves[20].


Demand for cobalt, to be used in batteries, has risen from 17kt in 2010, to 41kt in 2017[25] and 140kt in 2020[27] by 2025 it is estimated that it will make up 76% of the global demand with 90% being a by-product of copper and nickel mining[25]. From an ethical point of view cobalt is, perhaps, more of a concern as 65% of global production occurs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Concerns over the DRC centre around child labour, corruption, crime, poverty, hazardous mining practices, fuel instability and a history of civil war[35]. To compound these issues the current government does not have full control of the country and therefore mining activities[31][3].

The global cobalt resources are about 25Mt, 30% of which (7Mt) are known reserves and more than 120Mt of cobalt resources have been found in manganese nodules and layers on the ocean floor[27].

Monopolies within the cobalt value change continue downstream as China owns 8 of the 14 cobalt mines in the DRC and is the major importer of the raw material and exporter of the refined product[15]. This leaves customers for cobalt with very limited choice. It leaves the power to change prices, but not their processes to tackle issues of low pay etc, in the hands of a limited number of companies and countries[15].

These monopolies work against the increasing demands, by end-users, for transparency of the value-chain[15] as awareness of the issues such as child labour are raised and companies are held to account[1][4].

In both cases, these concerns can make the price volatile and increases risk to any financial investment that is required to smooth the transition for industry.


Manufactures mitigate by developing alternate battery technologies that require a smaller proportion of lithium or cobalt[25]. Indeed, there may be better solutions such as rechargeable proton batteries that use carbon and water[28] but that still need 5-10 years development.

Countries also recognise the risk to their economies and look to secure alternative sources ideally from their own territories, for example, the USA have added cobalt to its critical minerals list[10] that makes it easier to exploit in-country sources.

Part of the solution will be to reduce the demand on raw materials by looking to implement a circular economy model to the fledgling industry. A “6R” model covering reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, redesign, and remanufacture has been proposed[21]. There are many challenges within the model still to be worked out including: standardisation of battery design to reduce raw material inputs and support reuse and recycling, exploration of alternate battery chemistries and the reuse of batteries for grid storage[13]. However, this can create conflict as battery compositions change, they are difficult to standardise and develop reuse and recycling technologies; there is no perfect recovery process[37]. More research, and legislation, is required in anticipation of future recycling demand to offset potential environmental pollution.

Further options have been suggested[13] but will be more commercially challenging for car manufacturers: limit batteries size even at the expense of vehicle range (contradicting a major selling point for manufacturers) and design cars to last longer i.e. have a greater lifetime mileage (undermines manufacture need to sell more cars).


It is clear from this, that EVs are not a straightforward solution to the problems of the ICE. There are other solutions to pollution, from road traffic, that have been proposed that may have less of a focus than they should, and perhaps as a result have shown little progress.

By increasing car sharing and occupancy there will be less cars being used if all additional occupants would have driven. However, the UK’s National Travel Survey (NTS) shows the average car occupancy rates have declined by about 2% from 2002 to 2019 and the rate of single occupants has increased by about the same amount[8]. Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 pandemic has worked against this and other initiatives as the NTS shows there has been a 5% shift through 2020 to single occupancy journeys[8]. It remains unclear how long these impacts will last and at what level they will stabilise.

Cars spend 97% of their time parked[26] which represents an unacceptable waste of resources. The NTS shows that the rate of access to cars per adult has continued to rise from 0.42 in the mid-1980s to 0.67 in 2020[8]. Better progress could be made by combining solutions, for example, the Wisselspoor Buildings Project, Utrecht, Netherlands is a dense housing development with car parking space for only 64% of households, but that offers an extensive solar powered electric car sharing scheme. “We Drive Solar”, who operate the scheme, found that 90% of their customers get rid of at least one car, and the distance they drive, per household, is less as the car stops being the default[16]. Car sharing has the advantage of allowing people to select the car they need at the time they need it, for example, a small car to commute or a larger family car for a camping holiday. A significant component of the challenge being faced to make this change is that it involves changes to human behaviour. Cars are a consumer item that people define themselves by[26] and people want to continue to use cars[2].

By switching to other modes of transport or just by travelling less distance by car will also reduce emissions and encourage a move to reduced car ownership. Looking at the NTS[8] and excluding 2020 due to COVID-19 and prior to 2009 due to the UK recession the average trip length and distance travelled were flat at 6.9 miles and 6,600 miles respectively. Using 2009 as an index year, the data shows a very small drop in car driver (-2%) and passenger (-9%) distance travelled with surface rail & cycling distances increasing (28% and 14%) but not walking or buses that dropped to 75-88% of 2009 levels. Using the same index year, shows a very small drop in car driver (-3%) and passenger (-8%) trips. If a mode switch happened, then it was to surface rail and not walking, cycling or buses that declined to 70-84%.

Adding road charges for ICE cars, as happens in the clean air zones of several cities such as Paris[14] and London[17], disincentivises the use of ICE cars and can encourage a transport mode switch or encourage the use of EVs.

Exchanging ICE for EV vehicles remains the default solution for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the current business models of car manufacturers require that they sell cars and so it is in their interests to continue to sell EVs once ICE cars are banned. There is no incentive for them to eliminate designed obsolescence to create true “sustainable technology” with less frequent model changes and cars with long service life that are easily repairable and serviceable. Car companies are facilitating the status quo agenda by signing up international agreements such as the “Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans”[34] and by running adverts for EVs.

Secondly, it is the easy option: “EVs … offer the easiest substitute behaviour for citizens” [23]. Cars are embedded in our psyche, their infrastructure dominates the design of our cities; they are a habit that is hard to kick[23].


Society cannot continue to consume resources at their current rate and use ICE. Part of the solution is to move to EV to reduce GHG emissions, however, we also need to reduce the number of cars, their usage and increase their longevity as well as promote public transport, cycling and walking. This will make the transition to EVs easier as there would be less demand for supporting grid and charging infrastructure as well as demand for resources.

Now is the time to start using this new technology the way we mean to go on and make it as clean as possible both ethically and environmentally.


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