Triple Bottom Line: Navigating the road to clean transportation

When I was a kid, my dad brought home a decades-old Volkswagen camper van in a color that could only be described as “hazardous material” green. My dad just may be the original #vanlife influencer, because our family beach days and camping trips in his repair-prone vehicle inspired me to search for one of my own. 

Unfortunately, these Volkswagens are known gas-guzzlers and  they aren’t sold new in the United States, so prices for these decades-old models are exorbitant. This past week, I heard some news that made my environmentalist heart soar — this year, Volkswagen will be coming out with an all-electric version of the classic microbus. 

Despite its inability to fit as many surfboards as I’d like, I have no hate for the very practical 2010 Toyota Camry that I bought last year. It’s no hippie microbus, and I have a mild heart palpitation whenever I see my total bill for a tank of gas these days, but nonetheless, I’m grateful for my fuel-efficient 32 highway MPG. 

Although gas prices had long been rising, the conflict in Ukraine has caused a phenomenon not unlike the pandemic toilet paper scramble. While the U.S. has its own fuel reserves, traders are willing to pay more for gas now on the off chance that they won’t be able to get it later. Experts also believe the demand for gas dropped during the pandemic, leading oil companies to produce less than their capacity, reminding us just how much power fossil fuel companies have over gas pricing. 

Many studies have shown that gas price spikes such as this correlate with renewed interest in electric vehicles. Now more than ever, it seems like electric vehicles are the way to go — drivers can avoid the fluctuations of the international oil market while doing something good for the planet. But is it ever really that simple?

The electric car market is slowly gaining traction across the world, as the number of electric cars, buses, vans and trucks on the road is expected to reach 145 million by 2030, but consumers are right to question its overall greenness.

Generally, experts agree that electric vehicles create a lower footprint over the course of their lifetime — from manufacture to scrap — than cars with traditional internal combustion engines, even in this transitional phase. Despite the comparatively clean-burning emissions of EVs, there are still some major downsides to consider before handing a significant chunk of your bank account to Elon Musk.

The most complex part of the EV supply chain is the production of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery needed for the car to run. Not only is creating batteries incredibly energy-intensive and carbon-emitting, it also requires the mining of rare raw materials. Increased demands for lithium has resulted in extreme environmental decimation, utilizing extractive and water-intensive practices to harvest vast quantities of the finite resource in places such as the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. 

A study from the MIT Energy Initiative found that the battery and fuel production for an EV generates higher emissions than the manufacturing of a traditional automobile, but these costs are offset by an EV’s energy efficiency over time compared to a combustion engine. Additionally, in many parts of the world, coal and oil still power electricity grids. Unless your home is retrofitted with solar panels and a battery bank, odds are that the energy you’re using to charge your EV is coming from a nonrenewable source. It may be cheaper than the pricey fees you’re paying for gas these days, but electricity has a financial and environmental cost of its own.

All this is to say, although they’re marketed as a net-positive innovation, EVs present some major environmental trade-offs. However, with greater investment and stricter government regulation, we should expect more legitimately sustainable and affordable electric vehicles on the market in the next few decades. The world is on the precipice of a green transportation revolution and needs support to make it happen. Broader adaptation, more sustainable EV technology and greater infrastructural developments must occur simultaneously. 

The Biden Administration’s Build Back Better legislation theoretically uses policy to guide action — it includes measures that would incentivize buying EVs — but the proposal has yet to pass the Senate. To make EVs accessible to all, we need to address the price point, expand charging station availability and reassess the sustainability of materials. Above all else, we must successfully navigate the labyrinthine national power grid —  an incredibly arduous task, but without widespread clean energy, we’ll never achieve the full potential for electric vehicles. The sooner the better — my electric Volkswagen is waiting for me!

Montana Denton is a senior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.