By Sam Killmeyer

Electric vehicles (EVs) have tons of benefits, and if you’re able to afford an EV or hybrid vehicle, by all means, buy one! Using an EV is a great way to live a more eco-friendly life and reduce air pollution in your local community. The purpose of this article is to address the systemic changes that need to be made to meet climate justice goals — not individuals’ personal choices as to the type of vehicle they drive. 

In order to meet the ambitious climate goals we need to ensure a livable future, our focus should be on broader transportation and infrastructure changes, not simply swapping our gas-guzzling cars for sleek electric vehicles. Many current climate plans, including Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan, prominently feature EVs, and they’ve become a focal point for envisioning and promoting a green future. Biden’s plan includes:

  • National EV charging system (half a million charging stations by 2030)
  • Tax credits, rebates, and other incentives for individuals and businesses that buy EVs

Governor Polis has also backed transitioning to electric vehicles, and in 2019, his first executive order was aimed at driving EV adoption. However, as 350CO has addressed, the CO Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap establishes ambitious goals without including plans for enforcement and third-party monitoring to keep the fossil fuel industry from continuing to pollute.

As can be seen in both Biden’s and Polis’ climate plans, EVs and other technological solutions are often used to inspire hope and uplift politicians’ climate message, while distracting from the larger, more complex, and vital systemic changes that need to be made to ensure a just, livable future.

Tech Saviorism

There are so many exciting innovations happening to fight the climate crisis, and in order to meet our climate goals, we’re going to need as many strategies as possible — including tech solutions. However, it’s important to remember that technology won’t be enough to slow global warming, and much of the technology being built today is upholding the broken structure of climate injustice that brought us to this moment.

When it comes to EVs, one of the issues with their creation is that the lithium used for EV batteries is mined in Australia or from salt flats in South America, including Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Extraction uses a ton of groundwater, which diverts water from Indigenous farmers. If the burden of extraction and pollution is still shouldered by the Global South, we’re not truly working for climate justice.

More so, tech CEOs like Musk sell themselves as geniuses whose innovations will save us from the climate crisis, and while that’s certainly an enticing idea, it’s one that supports the capitalist structures that have brought about the climate crisis. Musk is the richest person in the world at more than $150 billion. And despite his claim that Tesla is working towards zero emissions, its carbon emissions are rising. As I wrote in a previous article about billionaires profiting during the pandemic, if the current economic and political structures remain in place, these tech solutions (like EVs) are simply contributing to the same world that preserves the wealth of the rich at the expense of everyone else, and at the expense of the planet.

Can The Free Market Save The Planet?

Embedded in the idea of tech saviorism is the idea that the “market knows best,” and technocratic faith is really market faith. When we uplift solutions like EVs or carbon markets, we’re still supporting this drive towards accumulation, rather than the necessary degrowth economy that Jessica Isaacs wrote in her previous 350 Colorado newsletter article, “Degrowth: Supporting a Just Recovery Out Of COVID-19.” This “green capitalism” rests on the idea that as consumers become more environmentally conscious, they will drive the demand for things like EVs and other clean technologies.

The problem, of course, is that corporations/producers aren’t driven by consumers or an ethical urge to save the planet; they’re driven by profit. We are producing more and more vehicles instead of investing in public transit because the profit of auto companies is our first priority, not public health or the planet. Both consumer-based and market incentives (like carbon markets) are simply ways to avoid what we really need: to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere and transition off fossil fuels. Markets are based on the idea of infinite growth, but our planet is finite, and we need to transition from a profit-driven economy to a circular, sustainable economy. No market-based solution will solve a market-created problem.

“In a world where we all go to net zero, there isn’t extra mitigation anywhere that you can buy or sell.” Gilles Dufrasne of Carbon Market Watch

So What Can We Do? Push For (Green) Public Transit!

As Americans, we have a huge dependence on car culture, and our nation’s identity is closely tied to the production of cars. More so, many Americans base their identities on the vehicles they own — which includes both fuel-guzzling F-150s and electric vehicles. EVs are a great way to satisfy that cultural need while reducing emissions, but we need to give people other options! 

If we’re going to transition from fossil fuels and to (hopefully!) 100% clean, renewable energy, we need to electrify everything. Then, instead of getting our energy from burning coal or natural gas, we power the grid with wind turbines, solar panels, and other renewable resources. After all, an EV is only as green as the energy used to power it. However, just because we can create cars that run off electricity doesn’t mean that’s where we should focus our efforts. It’s important to remember that truly radical change will mean changing the way we live as Americans — and that includes our dependence on cars as our primary mode of transportation.

We need to invest in infrastructure that supports other, more eco-friendly forms of transportation, like bikes, trains, and buses. We need to see public transit as a public utility — just as vital to our cities as electricity and water. As climate activists, we need to work to push both our elected officials to prioritize public transit, and as we build new buses, rail lines — imagine jumping on a train instead of driving on I-25 or I-70 — to make them electric, and powered by clean energy. 

Ready to help? Join a 350CO committee and help us fight for climate justice in CO!