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“The long lifetime of fossil fuel CO, creates a sense of fleeting folly about the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. Our fossil fuel deposits, 100 million years old, could be gone in a few centuries, leaving climate impacts that will last for hundreds of millennia. The lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is a few centuries, plus 25% that lasts essentially forever. The next time you fill your tank, reflect upon this.

The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate by David Archer, geophysicist 

Monday’s eclipse experience viscerally includes all of us as beings of the universe who do not control the heavenly orbs. Most of the time we forget this at our ultimate peril. A few dozen private jets came to Sherbrooke for the occasion, spewing pollution and causing more haze.

The history of our use of fossil fuels is one of utter devastation. Wars, expropriation of lands, biodiversity loss, climate breakdown, glacial melting, vast areas of contamination affecting land, oceans, rivers and aquifers, massive human rights violations, huge health impacts and even constant small spillages of gas or oil in our streets and neighbourhoods, are leading to untold suffering that is already beginning to unfold. As oil companies in 2024 increase their obscene profits so does their legacy of pillaging Nature expand.

Four years ago I bought a small electric car, and these days I have many conversations about electric vehicles (EVs). Most people’s negative reactions to them range from passionate opposition to being worried about whether there are sufficient rapid charging stations along the roads. 

Frankly, I’m perplexed why those same educated people seem to forget that their lives have been spent travelling by plane, buying carbon-intensive products (including cars, electric or not) and generally being in the top 10% of the world’s population that is ripping apart the natural world through biodiversity loss, fossil fuel pollution and climate heating. Canada is one of the top five elite and notorious countries for overconsumption. As people accelerate their use of flights—Montreal’s Trudeau airport is getting a C$4 billion facelift to tempt them to do so—the simplest research shows that there is a lot going for electric vehicles, if only to massively lower pollution levels, as well as getting rid of the chemical stench from fossil cars’ exhaust which is not often spoken of. 

But the details make the arguments in favour of EVs appear less clear-cut and merit examination.

The majority of new cars will probably be electric by 2040. Some of the very valid questions that come up all the time concern the vast amounts on energy and water needed to produce them, as well as the difficult recycling process, on which only now is any progress being made.

Like all road vehicles, EVs use tires, which through particle abrasion are a major contributor to air and water pollution, with humans and wildlife equally affected. (Fishers are suing tire companies for polluting rivers.) In fact, because of the weight of the batteries EVs carry, their tires wear out faster those of fossil-fueled (ICE) vehicles, causing greater pollution.

And if you are considering buying an electric SUV or, worse, an electric pickup truck, think again: the fossil energy required to build those monsters outweighs any climate benefits for a very long time–and they use larger tires.

Québec’s hydro-electricity source can be counted as one good reason to drive an EV. In Québec we like to think that our hydro production is the cleanest source of electricity, but there are serious problems associated with it. Does it cause less climate heating than coal, gas or oil generation? Of course, but it releases considerable quantities of dissolved methane from the breakdown of vegetation through disturbing the water. Fortunately there is research going ahead to capture this potent greenhouse gas from the dams.

We also need to remember that Québec’s hydro dams come with ethical issues relating to the large areas of land that are flooded and the displacement of Indigenous communities in order to build them.

Another contentious issue relating to EVs is the mining for lithium, nickel and cobalt for the batteries, as well as the production of the batteries themselves, both of which have a vast impact on local people’s lives and the surrounding Nature. Many new mines violate the rights of Indigenous communities, and most of the time there has been little or no consultation between communities, mining companies and governments. Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Nevada is one such devastating mining extravaganza approved by government, and it will operate on federal lands, no less. A court recently refused to rescind the mining permit despite the acknowledged harm accruing to the land and the people living there. 

Closer to home, the Québec government allowed electric battery producer Northvolt to obtain permits for EV battery production close to Montreal without going through a thorough assessment process. Considering that a different development was refused building permits on the same precious wetland area, I do wonder what twisted machinations came to pass… There have been many protests, but Northvolt is still pushing ahead.

Conversely, a proposal by Rio Tinto to develop one of Europe’s largest lithium mines, in Serbia, was also strongly opposed, and in 2022 the permits to proceed were rescinded, although the corporation is still trying to find a way forward. 

The devastation continues: Indonesia finds itself in the midst of huge criticism for allowing nickel mining to proceed on an island where an Indigenous uncontacted tribe lives. Adlun Fikri, a Sawai activist from Sagea, summed up the situation: “In the upstream area where they mine, it’s destructive, degrading forest, destroying forest, and causing human rights violations. The local residents here bear the cost for global ambition [net zero]. Western people enjoy the electric vehicle, and meanwhile we get the negative impact.” 

The introduction of a coal-fired nickel-smelting complex in the area is also causing considerable damage and distress.

“It is an unacceptable, false climate solution to build new captive coal plants to power nickel processing operations and to deforest such large areas for nickel mining,” said Krista Shennum, a researcher at Climate Rights International. “Electric vehicle companies should ensure their critical mineral supply chains are fossil fuel free, and foreign governments—including the U.S. and E.U. member states—should provide financial support to Indonesia’s energy transition, including to decommission these coal plants.” 

If the global north is to break from its colonial mindset, it must stop expecting that there have to be sacrificial zones for its ill-begotten extractive technologies. A new social paradigm must ensure that social justice is the norm and basis for all actions, and ecologically driven policies must underscore it, turning away at last from the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. 

What, then, is there to celebrate about EVs? In my opinion, they are undoubtedly the lesser of two evils. In fact, I have never read a peer-reviewed study that concluded otherwise. Over their lifetime, electric cars do not pose the heightened climate risks that fossil-burning (ICE) cars do. True, it takes a couple of years to pay back all the fossil fuel emissions embodied in their manufacture, but over the lifetime of the vehicle the pollution is less than that of a typical ICE car. Every small reduction is significant. If possible, getting rid of a car is always the best solution.

EVs, no matter their size, cut down drastically the obnoxious odours, air and noise pollution where that is needed most: the city. And whereas EV reliance on fossil energy for charging their batteries slowly diminishes with the increasing use of renewables, fossil-fueled vehicles will emit harmful pollution every second of their existence.

Electric vehicles will not save us from ourselves and will definitely not stop by themselves the slide towards climate/biodiversity collapse, but they are one part of the endeavour to turn a final page on fossil fuels.

It is definitely not to our governments and certainly not to the corporations that voraciously encircle society that I look for glimpses of humanity’s better self. A week ago I visited Sherbrooke’s Café 440 on Wellington South. The café hosts many events, including traditional dancing and discussions. Possibly eighty people under the age of 40 were there to listen to Caroline Desruisseaux, who is obtaining her masters degree from Université de Sherbrooke, speak about Québec’s Indigenous people, biodiversity and climate heating. Apart from the occasional move of a chess piece, everyone was in rapt silence. All of those bright, vigilant people are the reason why there is cause to believe that we can transform our growing ecological tragedy into a celebration for Earth justice and peace.