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The downside of the electric hype

Electric cars as climate saviours? Some experts increasingly doubt that the electric car can contribute to the fight against climate change. Above all, the production of the batteries contributes massively to environmental damage in other parts of the world. Moreover, electric cars are hardly in demand on the used car market.

European countries are pushing ahead with the mobility shift towards electric cars at an ever faster pace. Old combustion cars are being banned in environmental zones in many cities, and their new registration is soon to be banned altogether. Hope lies in the electric car. But experts see more and more problems with this path of mobility transformation.

The batteries of electric cars in particular are a major problem. Their production requires on average two times as many raw materials as the construction of a combustion car. Above all, copper, cobalt, nickel and lithium are needed for the batteries. However, the extraction of these raw materials contributes massively to environmental destruction in other countries. Lithium, for example, is extracted in South America. According to estimates, about 70 per cent of the world's lithium reserves are stored in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Local mining companies displace the indigenous population. Chemicals are also used to extract the raw material, making people and animals in the region sick. The trend towards longer range e-cars needs ever larger batteries. For the environment and the people in the lithium areas, this trend is disastrous.

Around ten kilos of lithium are needed for an e-car battery. Although the batteries can be recycled, according to calculations by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI, a small e-car only brings a climate benefit after about 72,000 kilometres driven. For vehicles with larger batteries, the value is correspondingly higher. Due to the high consumption of resources during production, they are therefore harmful to the environment if they are not recycled beforehand. However, the used car market for electric cars is much less lucrative than that for combustion cars. The state subsidies make it hardly worthwhile to buy an electric car second-hand. The vehicles lose value much faster than diesel or petrol cars. The rapid development of the technology contributes to this. Older e-cars can therefore no longer keep up with the newer models.  So while the market for new cars is growing rapidly, the vehicles are only used for a short time.

The electricity mix with which an e-car is fuelled also determines how climate-friendly the vehicle really is. So to really make the e-car a climate saver, it would have to be charged with renewable energy, it would have to have a long service life, and the raw materials of the batteries would have to be recycled. So the e-car has the potential to make the world greener. However, it is not yet a climate saviour, but shifts the problem of environmental destruction and climate change to a faraway place that seems to concern us little.

So instead of relying solely on the e-car, we need concepts to shape the everyday lives of citizens without cars. Tomorrow's mobility must have less road traffic and more public transport, shorter distances that can be covered by bike or on foot. The e-car could then complement these concepts. In this way, it could actually contribute to saving the climate.