The world’s 16 largest ships create as much CO2 as every car on the planet. It is better for the environment to keep running a 20-year old car than to scrap it and draw on more natural resources to buy another one. Firing a coal power station to create energy for a car battery is dirtier and less efficient than burning fuel to power an engine to power a car. There isn’t enough lithium ion on the planet to meet the world’s escalating electric car ambitions. And so the list goes on.
Getting clarity on what is and what isn’t true isn’t easy - or sometimes even possible - but on the issue of electric cars it does seem that the legislators are determined to force our hands. Come what may, within a generation or two we will be buying (or leasing, or subscribing) to them, because that is what governments around the world are determining, be it (covertly) for their economic gain or (publicly) through a belief that it will help to solve an impending environmental crisis.
But is it the right decision, and how will we ever know? The landscape is moving and, in many regards, not even measurable. On the latter point, take the mining of lithium ion, for instance. If you believe some of the headlines, much of it is mined by child labourers in dangerous conditions for a pittance and at a huge local environmental cost. There is no value that can be ascribed to that, no measurement in terms of g/km of CO2, but few would find it acceptable.
The suspicion among some car makers is that advancing battery technology requires legislative planning that is far in advance of where it is today, in terms of determining which precious materials can be used, how they can be extracted and how the resulting batteries can be recycled or reused once they become too inefficient for use in a car.
If these aren’t taken care of, the suspicion is the whole-life environmental impact of electric cars could be hugely damaging, potentially to the point that the growth in electric car sales has a net damaging effect on the environment, depending how far you go in your definition of environment.
Consensus is hard to find, but as one senior engineer at the Tokyo motor show told me: “What is certain is that the legislators are not used to working at the kind of pace that will deliver real solutions. Today the answer may be hybrid technology, in a few years it might be battery electric technology but a few years after that it might be hydrogen.
"If the environment really is the motivation behind these changes then we need science to come up with the answers, not emotion, and we need legislators to be ready to move faster and with more flexibility than ever before if we they are going to deliver the right answer for all types of transport all of the time.”