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  • Eric Lim

Are Electric Vehicles A Scam?

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

It’s time to start thinking about the possibility that electric vehicles (EVs) may be just as harmful to the environment as gas cars. Although there are still few studies out there comparing EVs and gas cars in terms of their net effect on the environment, it is probable that, all things considered, EVs are no better for the environment than gas cars. Even if EVs do turn out to be better, the benefit will be marginal.

Here are a few reasons why I argue EVs are no good for the environment.

Reason 1: Batteries Are a Dirty Business

The most important component of the gas car is the engine. For the EV, it’s the battery. And batteries are a very harmful thing to the environment to produce.

The key concept here is “embodied emissions.” Embodied emissions are essentially all the greenhouse gas emissions that are generated during the production and distribution phases of a product before it is delivered to the customer and the customer starts using the product.

EVs, particularly the batteries, cause a great deal of embodied emissions.

A standard EV carries a 1,000-pound battery. To manufacture such a battery, you need the following minerals, according to a 2021 article from TechCrunch:

  • 30 pounds of lithium

  • 60 pounds of cobalt

  • 130 pounds of nickel

  • 190 pounds of graphite

  • 90 pounds of copper

Battery and auto manufacturers procure these minerals from mining companies that go out into remote parts of countries like the Congo, China, Argentina, Australia, etc. To obtain the minerals, mining companies construct new roads, clear trees and forests, transport heavy machinery, and open new mines, each of which pumps out carbon and simultaneously undercuts nature’s capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere.

To get their hands on the minerals, mining companies first have to dig up mineral ores (i.e. rocks that contain bits and pieces of minerals). According to the TechCrunch article: on average, for a single EV battery, a mining company must dig 30 tons of ore for 60 pounds of cobalt, 5 tons of ore for 130 pounds of nickel, 5 tons of ore for 90 pounds of copper, and so on.

Moreover, to get those ores in the first place, mining companies need to excavate the earth that contains the ores. The amount of earth that must be moved in order to collect the requisite amount of ores is called “overburden.” For a single EV battery, it is estimated that an average of 250 tons of overburden has to be dug up.

Land clearing for a nickel mine in Indonesia (Image Credit: Kairsarmuda/Shutterstock)

Mine in Spain (Image Credit: Luis Becerra/Shutterstock)

All this mining is done with heavy machinery like excavators, bulldozers, and conveyors that run on diesel. And it is done in remote locations, miles and miles off the beaten path, which means that the logistical chain to operate these mines (i.e. fuel, power, amenities for the workers, etc.) also runs largely on diesel and diesel generators. Some mines are located in the desert, which may not be so bad, but a lot of them are located in tropical regions like the Congo or Indonesia, where mining companies have to slash and burn swaths of forests before they can get to work.

That is not all: the more consumers buy electric vehicles, the higher the demand for batteries goes up, causing mining companies to start new mines in ever more remote locations for ever lower-grade ores. As a result, battery production becomes less and less efficient and emits progressively more carbon.

Reason 2: By the Way, We Need Those Batteries

Despite how dirty this process is, we need as many batteries as possible in order to achieve the renewable energy transition.

At the moment, the battery market is being stretched from two directions. One direction is the EVs, and the other is energy storage, whether it's your home battery connected to rooftop solar panels or large-scale battery energy storage systems that store electricity from wind and solar farms.

Battery energy storage system (BESS)

For humanity to achieve net zero, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is a top priority, and the challenge with renewable energy has less to do with production and more with distribution and storage. Already, renewable energy is getting to the point where it’s cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels. The hard part is (1) transmitting the energy from wind and solar farms and (2) storing excess energy generated during peak hours, because wind and solar energy are unpredictable by nature in terms of production.

If we could take the batteries earmarked for EVs and use them to build out more energy storage projects or sell more home batteries so that more households can switch to renewable energy, imagine how much faster that’ll help us get to net zero.

Reason 3: Other Upstream Emissions

Recall the fact that a typical EV battery weighs around 1,000 pounds. To cite the TechCrunch article once again, an average electric motor in an EV is only 200 pounds lighter than an internal combustion engine in a gas car. To make up for the difference in weight, EV manufacturers use more aluminum and carbon fiber to replace steel in EVs. The problem is, aluminum and carbon fiber are “respectively 300% and 600% more energy intensive per pound to produce than steel.” In other words, it’s not only the battery but also the body of the EV that produces more emissions compared to a gas car.

In addition, the infrastructure to support the EV market will add even more to the emissions calculus of the EV transition. To replace gas cars with EVs, we’ll need to open new mines, build new battery manufacturing plants, new EV manufacturing plants, new charging stations, new manufacturing plants and distribution systems for charging stations, and so on.

Correct Way to Think About Climate Change

Climate change has to be thought about holistically. That means, we have to think about how to minimize not just carbon emissions but also waste and ecological destruction.

Given this framework, EVs fare so poorly compared against the other alternative to gas cars: public transportation. Public transportation produces a fraction of carbon emissions compared to gas cars and EVs (watch Bill Nye explain why). Moreover, public transportation costs consumers much, much less than cars in terms of dollars and cents, thus not only benefiting the environment but also transferring wealth back to consumers, instead of auto companies. Here are just a few benefits of public transportation:

1. Cheaper than cars

2. Greener than cars

3. Better for urban and town design (therefore, higher life satisfaction)

4. Healthier for people

5. Better for small businesses

Public transportation is the real solution

Many countries are already moving in the direction of more public transportation. Austria, for example, introduced a public transportation initiative in 2021 called Klimaticket (meaning "climate ticket" in German), where you just pay 1,095 euros ($1,099) per year, or $106 per month, to be able to use any mode of public transportation, anywhere in Austria, however much as you want. Similarly, Germany introduced its own initiative in 2023 called Deutschlandticket ("Germany Ticket" in German), where you pay 49 euros per month (roughly, 600 euros or $657 per year) to use as much regional and local public transportation as you want.

Picture of a Deutschland Ticket (Image Credit: Firn/Shutterstock)

Usually, you hear two arguments in defense of EVs: (1) even if EVs aren’t perfect, they serve as a stopgap until we transition to something better (like public transportation) and (2) Americans in particular will never give up cars. I find that both arguments are dubious.

With regards to the stopgap argument, it is doubtful whether EVs are even a stopgap in the first place. There aren’t enough studies to understand how green EVs truly are, but we already have much reason and evidence to think that EVs are just as harmful to the environment as gas cars.

Moreover, hypothetically, if the EV was never invented, the world would already be transitioning from cars to public transportation. Now that we have EVs, however, the auto industry is flooding the market with PR campaigns to convince the public that EVs are a boon to the environment and everyone should buy a new car. Just like how auto companies lobbied the crap out of Washington during the ‘50s and ‘60s to cover America with cars and highways, now they are bent on greenwashing EVs and turning the public’s attention away from the drawbacks of the EV.

With respect to the “Americans love cars” argument, Americans may be more amenable to public transportation than they seem. All things considered, a car costs the average American somewhere between $500 and $1,000 per month (after accounting for auto loan, insurance, gas/charging, parking, maintenance, and government subsidies and tax breaks for EVs). In contrast, a national public transportation initiative like Germany or Austria’s would only cost you $100 per month. If we present Americans with the real economic and environmental price tag of EVs and started an earnest conversation, America may be more inclined to public transportation than it seems.

Lastly, in terms of feasibility of building a European- or Asian-style public transportation in the US, it’s more than feasible. In fact, America used to run on public transportation until the auto industry took over America after WW2 and made it a car-centric country in a matter of 10, 20 years. In the next 10 years (if not less), America will collectively spend trillions of dollars on EVs between individual car purchases and government subsidies. With that level of investment, you bet we can build out any kind of public transportation that we need.


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