Ever since I started looking at sustainability, it’s been clear to me that our use of transportation is a crucial factor. According to Statista, transportation is the second largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the world, after electricity and heat generation. Since I have been dealing with the question of what I personally can contribute to achieving the climate goals for some time, the “car question” also came up for me.
Having fewer cars on the road is a good thing. Drive less and, if possible, reduce the number of cars in your household. But what about alternative means of transportation? Many people need a car to get to work. Is it better to switch to an electric car? In Germany, e-cars and even hybrid versions — those powered by both electricity and fuel — are heavily promoted by the government.
Is the e-car our clean future?
My gut instinct is to answer this question in the affirmative. After all, it’s much quieter and produces no exhaust fumes. But what about the electricity or battery production? To find out, I did a little research. At the same time, I happened to come across a report from WDR (Western German Broadcasting Company) on German TV: “Electric cars: How environmentally friendly are they really?”
Among other things, the film reports on the damage caused by mining the rare metals needed to make batteries for e-cars. For example, more than 60 percent of the world’s lithium deposits are in South America. In order to mine these, the environment there is destroyed and heavily polluted. The governments, e.g. of Argentina, partly award the mining rights to foreign companies. To what extent anyone cares about the environmental compatibility of the mining is more than questionable. German car manufacturers, such as Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen, try to ensure that their suppliers comply with German environmental standards by means of multiple choice questionnaires and passages in their contracts. In doing so, they pass on the responsibility to the suppliers.
Fewer Cars for more global justice
Via the report, I came across Merle Groneweg, who has prepared a study on car drive technologies for the environmental organization Powershift.
The German study is entitled “Fewer cars, more global justice – diesel, gasoline, electric: drive technology is not yet making a traffic turnaround.” (Sorry, only in German)
Actually, the title says it all. Even though e-cars are currently the best option to replace combustion engines, they also consume a lot of resources. This is not so visible to us because the crucial raw materials are not mined here, but mainly in South America. Thus, we contribute with e-cars increasingly to a further social injustice.
It is true that these cars make our environment cleaner. But in the poorer South American countries, it is more polluted or even destroyed? The indigenous peoples living there lack clean drinking water and the mining irreparably affects the ecosystems. Once again, the feel-good factor of the Western world is at the expense of poorer countries and population strata.
But cars with combustion engines also consume plenty of metallic raw materials. Especially for the car body, ores (bauxite and iron) are mined in countries like Guinea and Brazil. The problem for the population and nature is therefore similar to that of the e-car.
More and more, bigger and bigger
Unfortunately, the trend toward more and more cars per person is being exacerbated in Europe and North America: cars are getting bigger and bigger. SUVs now account for almost one-fifth of new registrations in Germany. And minivans are not only bought by families with many children. The bigger the car, the higher its resource consumption, both in production and operation.
The solution cannot be to simply buy the same car as an e-version instead of an internal combustion SUV. We need to think about alternatives: fewer cars owned, more car sharing, the use of public transportation and new services. In Augsburg, for example, there is swaxi, a ridesharing service. You enter your start and destination in an app and the software shows you who can give you a ride and when.
Of my three adult children, only one has his own car. The other two live close to the city and get around on foot, by bike or by bus and train. I live in the country and am happy that there is at least a car sharing service in our area. It takes me two hours to get to work by public transport (one way). With my own car, I drive half an hour. In this case, public transportation is not really an alternative.
Fortunately, because of the coronavirus, many companies have allowed working from home and I drive to the office much less often. We got rid of one of our two cars and I have a car-sharing pass in case we ever need a second car. This way I have also already taken the opportunity to borrow an e-Golf.
Should I buy an e-car?
Nevertheless, I still have a question that I would now like to ask Merle Groneweg:
What do I do with my second car? We drive a Golf-sized gasoline car with an average fuel consumption of 5 to 6 liters per 100 km. Our annual mileage is about 15,000 km. Does it make sense to mount a solar system on the roof or garage now and exchange the gasoline car for an e-car? Not in a financial sense, but in a sustainable sense, especially since our solar system can’t charge the car during the day when we’re in the office. And would the e-car make sense even without our own solar system?
“It is not possible to give a blanket answer to such a question, nor can I make this calculation individually — whether it makes sense at this point in time depends on your driving behavior today as well as in the future, and also on how old your car is. If you have just purchased it, I would refrain from buying a new one, because the production of new cars in particular — regardless of the drive — is very resource-intensive. That’s why our demands are primarily directed at politicians, who should regulate by law, and secondarily at industry, which should build smaller cars and assume social and ecological responsibility.”
From the consumer’s perspective:
“Of course it makes sense to buy an e-car — but only if you feel that you are forced to drive and have no other options for satisfactory mobility. Admittedly, this is much easier to achieve in cities than in the countryside. Every car represents the consumption of raw materials, space and energy in production and operation, as well as the risk of accidents, noise, etc. It is important — and your article is a contribution to this — to deal with the topic on a socio-political level, i.e. beyond the individual.”