Balancing the Structural and Ethical Challenges of the EV Industry
As more sustainable technologies develop, such as Electric Vehicles (EVs), life cycle analysis should scrutinize ways in which impacts can be reduced, even though EVs produce less carbon dioxide emissions overall. Materiality concerns itself with physical attributes of an object that then impact how they are used or interacted within society.
For his master’s thesis, School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) graduate Roshan Krishnan (MS ’21) sought to analyze the production and lifespan of EVs and how EVs are created in a way that encourages and creates a dependency upon the already-established, single-vehicle system. There were two essential parts to his analysis. One focused on the assumed environmental benefits from reduced carbon emissions that affect sites of environmental harm. The second examined ways in which companies seek to encourage EV adaptation by mimicking the experience of driving a combustion engine. These factors complicate the environmentally beneficial picture painted by vehicle manufacturers and electrical utilities and create space for more inclusive ways of reducing fossil fuel dependency.
Krishnan was inspired to pursue this thesis because of his past experience with grassroots energy justice activism. “At one point I attended a public utility commission hearing,” said Krishnan. “We were advocating to keep utility rates low and found ourselves on the other side of the table from EV lobbyists. Price hikes were tied up with EV infrastructure projects, and I noticed that EVs were being pushed forward without an eye towards environmental justice.”
Krishnan conducted interviews with personnel within the automotive and utilities industries while also researching EV production commodity chains. Although EVs have reduced carbon emissions when compared to traditional combustion engines, their production life cycle is not free of social and ecological abuses, he said. This is a problem that both environmentalists, scientists, and engineers will need to work together to solve as EV use becomes more widespread. The expansion of EV use must be looked at through a justice lens.
In his thesis, Krishnan noted the displacement of environmental harm from emissions into other sectors. If EVs were purchased on a large scale, he wrote, this would decrease carbon emissions. However, environmental harm still exists within the EV production process, as EVs are reliant on power grids and metals like copper and lithium in order to create large car batteries.
“The projected growth of the EV industry is expected to necessitate increased extraction of these metals,” Krishnan said. “Deutsche Bank predicts that electric vehicles alone will make up 38 percent of all global lithium demand by 2025.” Not only is lithium mining considered environmentally unfriendly, but there are also reported claims of human rights abuses including child labor.
Advocating for ways to address human rights abuses is vital to reducing the harms generated by mining, so that EVs can be as ethically and environmentally beneficial as possible, Krishnan noted. “Developing countries with extensive battery metal reserves face dilemmas in balancing environmental harm, human rights abuses, and extractivist policies against capitalizing on these resources to build their economies,” he said. “We need to push for more democratic solutions in how these metals are extracted, focusing on local people getting a say in what happens, what is extracted, and how they are compensated.”
The EV industry has positioned itself as the main green economy that will drive the car-dependent United States infrastructure into a more environmentally friendly future, Krishnan added. It has done so by establishing “points of continuity,” what Krishnan defines as “features of the relationship between a consumer and an EV designed to replicate specific aspects of the experience of operating a gasoline-powered vehicle” (Krishnan, pp. 18-19). Charging stations, physical plug ports, and EV battery driving ranges are some of the ways automotive manufacturers are mirroring the combustion-engine driving experience.
According to Krishnan, EVs are replacing combustion engines with another individualized form of transportation instead of investing in forms of public transit, which are more sustainable overall. Krishnan would like to expand upon this research by “aligning my activism and advocacy around how we can reduce car usage overall within the United States and focus on the transfer to renewables, ensuring that we make sure this transfer is done in a way that doesn’t keep advancing harmful power structures.”
While the rise of the EV industry reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere, balancing the structural and ethical challenges that it creates is vital to increasing the industry benefits around the globe.