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Electric Vehicles and Climate Policy: Where Do We Go From Here?

In 2016, Bloomberg’s Tom Randal boldly proclaimed “It’s looking like the 2020s will be the decade of the electric car.” It’s been eight years since, and electric vehicle (or EV)  sales are dropping, worrying vendors and legislators over the durability of the California climate plan. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, cars contributed to over 1,023 million metric tons of fossil fuel emissions in 2022. And those emissions are only a small part of the nationwide fossil fuel emission output.

One thing is clear: The climate crisis isn’t approaching fast, it’s here. Yet over the past few years, we have learned that Americans are doubting the ability of electric cars to become the prime combatant of the climate crisis–and it’s easy to simply blame conservatives for this doubt. Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) speculated that “EVs won’t exist in a few years.” With congressional gridlock becoming increasingly a bigger issue due to political polarization, Republicans have time and time again blocked climate initiatives from passing. 

Climate policy in general is incredibly partisan, with Republicans generally opposed to passing widespread green initiatives. Even moderate conservatives, like 2024 Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, have continuously rejected climate legislation. According to Stand For America, Haley’s lobbying group, “liberal ideas would cost trillions and destroy our economy.” While moderate Republicans, Haley included, believe in climate change and its consequences, there’s a party-wide vendetta against federal anti-emissions legislation. In November, House Republicans passed a funding bill cutting EPA funding by 39%, gutting the agency’s regulatory ability. 

However, a gridlocked congress is not the only thing stopping the switch from gas-powered vehicles to electric. While the widespread use of electric vehicles would severely limit carbon emissions, EVs solely rely on the use of battery power. These power chargers, whether in-home or part of Tesla’s mass charging operation, also create emissions, using lots of energy from the power grid. Grid electricity relies heavily on fossil fuels, with about 60% of grid operations using coal, gas, or petroleum, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The fact of the matter is that EVs aren’t totally green, and they’re not a finite solution to the ever-growing problem of climate change.

That’s not the only problem. The sourcing of the minerals needed to power EV batteries is ambiguous, creating conversation from both sides of the aisle about the ethicality of cobalt and nickel mining. In 2023, it was revealed that one of Tesla’s main suppliers for cobalt and nickel, Glencore, was responsible for over 70 human rights abuse allegations since 2010. The Democratic Republic of Congo, a resource-rich country, is the main stage for these mining operations, exploiting hundreds of thousands of Congolese citizens.

Forced evictions take place as Congolese villages are paved to make way for costly mining operations, leaving citizens no choice but to work in dangerous mining operations. Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, warned that these forced evictions are, “wrecking lives,” mirroring colonial-era human and civil rights abuses. According to Amnesty International, at least 15 kilograms of cobalt are required to power an electric vehicle, with demand for cobalt expected to reach 220,000 tons by 2025. 

EV’s not a finite solution to climate change, and the industry itself is dependent on exploitation. Hardliner conservatives may have some validity in their lack of confidence in EVs, but the lack of belief in climate change is concerning. According to Pew Research, 84% of Republicans oppose phasing out gas-powered vehicles by 2025, while 64% of Democrats are in favor of the proposal. In that same analysis, 15% of self-identified conservative Republicans believe that man-made climate change is in progress. 

So where do we go from here? Amid a myriad of human rights abuse allegations coupled with lower-level fossil fuel output from the power grid, EVs truly may not be a sustainable option as time goes by. But green solutions are needed, and the clock is ticking. How do we get a gridlocked Congress to compromise on climate legislation? 

Political polarization remains at an all-time high in the United States, and the only way to face climate change is to compromise. Liberals don’t want to budge on necessary climate initiatives, and conservatives are unwilling to budge on Big Oil and Gas, leaving total stagnancy. Bipartisan solutions are the only option, and there may be room for hope. While intensely condemned for not pulling out of the emissions-producing Willow Project, the Biden Administration has been responsible for climate reforms, crackdowns on methane leaks, and notably rejoining the Paris Accord after Donald Trump’s administration left it. The Paris Accord is the most important modern climate agreement, adopted by 196 countries in the United Nations, and primarily aims to reduce global CO2 emissions. 

Executive actions have been a key avenue for climate reforms, but as the seat of presidential power shifts back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, so will executive support of climate policy. In December 2023, the Natural Climate Solutions Research and Extension Act Bill was introduced by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Senator Mike Braun (R-Ind.), functioning as a bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would advance sustainable agriculture practices nationwide. 

Progress is slow, but these pockets of bipartisanship are going to be key in creating a semblance of stricter limits on fossil fuel emissions. EVs may not be the way of the future. If not, then what is?

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