Top 10 reasons NOT to subsidize electric car industry

Recently the Liberals announced $13 billion in support to attract Volkswagen to establish an electric car battery production facility halfway between Toronto and Detroit. The German auto manufacturer will set up its factory on “1,500 acres of prime agricultural land” in St. Thomas, Ontario. The government claims its motivation is ecological. But here are the top ten reasons why this battery plant and electric cars are not the answer to our environmental ills:

10. One of the largest corporate handouts in Canadian history will turn farmland into a factory that will continue to promote a sprawling, ecologically destructive, landscape. Huge amounts of resources and energy will be used to construct a facility that will purportedly be so big it can be viewed from outer space.

9. Auto plants have a long history of polluting local air and waterways. The St. Thomas factory will be plugged into an energy grid dominated by nuclear power as well as a significant amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) emitting natural gas.

8. Electric battery powered cars usually emit fewer GHGs per kilometer of travel than internal combustion engines. But that’s not the case if the grid is largely fueled by coal (20% of US and 9% of Canadian electricity still comes from that heavy GHG emitting source). Where hydroelectricity, solar or nuclear are the dominant energy sources – not without their own toll on the environment – electric cars generally lead to significant reductions in GHG emissions. But most of the batteries will be used in vehicles bound for a US grid where 60% of electricity comes from fossil fuels.

7. From steel and aluminum, to paint and rubber production, the resources and energy required to build all cars are enormous. A third or more of the energy an automobile uses in its life cycle is in the production and destruction phases.Most personal vehicles are 2,000 to 6,000 pounds of various minerals, parts and electronics that are often shipped halfway across the world in massive fossil fuel powered vessels. In a bid to reduce fuel consumption there’s been more and more lightweight aluminum used in vehicles in recent years. Partly as a result, an astounding 6 percent of the world’s coal is used to produce electricity-intensive aluminum.

6. The production and destruction phases for electric vehicles tend to be more ecologically destructive. Electric cars have large batteries that are difficult to recycle.

5. One of the major elements in car batteries, cobalt, wreaks human and environmental devastation where it is mined in Congo. Lithium is another important mineral in electric batteries. Mining lithium is incredibly water intensive.

4. Beyond the resources and energy required to manufacture vehicles, the private car underpins a land, energy and resource intensive big box retail/suburban economy that has devoured incredible amounts of farms, wilderness andwoodlands. This often disrupts animal habitat and eco-systems.

3. Sprawling automotive infrastructure underpins a massive growth in house sizes, which consume more wood, cement, grass, pipe, etc. Big houses tend to have more appliances and stuff. It’s not easy fitting two fridges, a dishwasher, a freezer, a washer and drier, a pool table, six beds and four TVs into a small house or apartment. “Urban areas have less junk than suburbs.” said 1-800-GOT-JUNK’s Darryl Arnold. “But only because they have less space. My residential jobs in apartments and condos downtown are on average one eighth of a load, compared with closer to half a truck load in the suburbs.”

2. The automobile (electric or gas-powered) is a vehicle of endless consumption and their size and number keep growing. There’s no indication that the subsidy the Liberals are giving Volkswagen includes any commitment to produce small cars rather than electric SUVs. Nor is the public money linked to manufacturing batteries for electric buses. In fact, most of the funding is offered on a per battery basis, incentivizing greater car production.

1. The federal government’s massive subsidy to Volkswagen highlights Canada’s commitment to a model of profit accumulation structured around individuals driving 3,000-pound metal boxes. Does anyone believe the planet can sustain a transportation/urban planning system with most of the world’s eight billion people owning 3,000-pound vehicles?

Instead of subsidizing auto firms to build ever more private cars, the government should lay light rail and build metro lines. Even better, use the resources to turn public land currently devoted to the most dangerous, loud and polluting form of transport into combating the housing affordability crisis. In a direct cars-for-shelter exchange, for $13 billion many thousands of social/co-op/rental units could be built on roads such as René-Lévesque in Montréal or Gardiner in Toronto while simultaneously improving urbanity.

It’s a long past time to shift away from the private car and resource intensive sprawl towards walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented living spaces.

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