Response to Antoine and Émilie : electric cars
I’d like to thank Antoine Robertson and Émilie Riendeau for their thoughtful article on electric cars in last week’s Bulletin. It’s great to see high school students so engaged, and the article was very well written. I learned a few things about the mechanics of electric vehicles. And they’re absolutely right, electric cars are the way of the future.
Still, there was one aspect that they didn’t touch on that deserves attention: The source of the electricity used to charge the vehicle.
Québec is very fortunate, in that most of our electricity comes from hydroelectric dams. These have almost no carbon footprint, especially after the dam has already been built. There may be impacts on flooding from obstructing water arteries, but given the alternatives available, hydro power is certainly a very attractive option.
However, not everyone is so lucky. China, for instance, gets most of its electricity from coal. The truth is that the Chinese switching to electric vehicles has only a minor impact on their carbon footprint. Unfortunately, coal power is still very widespread in the world, and is likely to stay with us for a long time.
Other parts of the world use petrol-based fossil fuels or natural gas to generate electricity – such as in Western Canada. Although better for the environment than burning coal, this source of electricity still reduces the environmental benefits of switching to electric cars.
Another common source of electricity is nuclear power. France is a good example of this. Although the carbon footprint of nuclear power is very low, increasing electricity consumption to power electric cars will increase the required capacity of nuclear power networks, generating over the long term more nuclear waste, among other consequences.
All of this is to say that electric cars are an important part of any national environmental strategy, but they are also not a magic bullet.
Moving to generating electricity from wind or solar panels would help to maximize environmental benefits from electric vehicles. But we should also avoid over-use. The best answers are the same as before: prioritizing active transport such as cycling or walking, followed by taking public transit, and reducing our trips in cars as much as possible, electric or otherwise. Lastly, size matters. For a family considering moving to an electric vehicle, asking themselves how large of a vehicle they really need is an important question. How many of us truly need a vehicle the size of Tesla’s massive cyber truck, for instance, and all of the extra electricity and associated environmental impacts it will require?