Berkeley visiting scholar questions benefits of electric cars

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UC Berkeley visiting scholar Ozzie Zehner published an article Sunday arguing that electric vehicles are not as environmentally friendly as often believed.

Although once a proponent of electric cars, Zehner suggests in his article published in Spectrum that electric cars may even have greater environmental consequences in their entire life cycles than gasoline-powered cars do.

Currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Science, Technology and Society Center, Zehner says proponents often overlook the indirect processes that go into the manufacturing of these vehicles — including the mining of rare earth metals and disposal of batteries — that contribute to environmental damage.

“Upon closer consideration, moving from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric cars begins to look more and more like shifting from one brand of cigarettes to another,” Zehner said.

According to Zehner, the numerous studies on the efficiency of electric vehicles detract attention from other alternatives, such as walking and cycling. He argues that policymakers should shift the focus from electric vehicles to these cleaner modes of transport.

“Communities hold bake sales to fund bike racks,” Zehner said. “Meanwhile, the highway infrastructure is bathed in billions of public funds year after year.”

Despite his argument, other campus members still view electric cars as beneficial to the environment.

“We have to switch to electric vehicles,” said Ethan Elkind, climate policy associate of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the UC Berkeley School of Law. “There is simply no other way to avoid worst impacts of climate change without electrifying vehicles.”

Although it would not be easy, Zehner argues that it would be possible to maintain current standards of living without switching to electric vehicles.

“Numerous regions throughout the world have prioritized infrastructure for walking and biking,” he said. “And many of them have higher standards of living than the United States.”

Min Ju Lee, team lead of CalSol, a student-run organization that designs and builds solar cars at UC Berkeley, agrees with Zehner’s argument that the source of electricity is not all clean. However, electric vehicles still remain a very complex issue.

“There are so many things to consider,” Lee said. “There is no clear-cut line as to where you can stop.”

According to Zehner, the future of electric cars depends on how long people are willing to believe in the electric car “illusion.”

Tristan Lall, another member of CalSol and a graduate of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, says that the public has already begun to accept electric vehicles and that they are here to stay.

“The definition of an electric car is already broadening as the public comes to accept vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, and (it) may eventually encompass fuel cell-powered vehicles with similar configurations,” Lall said.

Contact Somin Park at [email protected].