Rapid growth also opens up a new landscape of challenges. We used to worry whether there would be sufficient demand for electric vehicles, particularly given their cost and range limitations. But demand already outstrips supply, which, in addition to driving up the cost of E.V.s and creating manufacturing and delivery delays, has given rise to anxiety over the next roadblock: the empire of mineral extraction, refinement and production that has to be built to meet that. That obstacle may be in some ways smaller than it appears, as Hannah Ritchie, among others, has emphasized: We are not yet mining enough lithium to meet demand, but it’s not exactly a scarce resource, and even Ritchie’s relatively conservative estimates suggest there is more than enough for a battery vehicle revolution.
Those taking a broader view of the ecological costs of this project, like the activist Thea Riofrancos, worry over a different set of unresolved questions: Is it possible to design a system for extracting and producing these materials in anything close to a responsible way? One possible approach, flagged by the Volts newsletter writer David Roberts, among others: actually recycling batteries, treating lithium as a “renewable” rather than endlessly extracted resource.
Behind that challenge lies another: Will production of electric vehicles be interrupted by potential deglobalization in green industries or by America’s Inflation Reduction Act, which requires that a portion of E.V. batteries’ parts be sourced or manufactured domestically or by certain trading partners to qualify for tax credits? At the moment, China produces about 75 percent of all E.V. battery cells, manufactures roughly the same share of those cell components and does more refining of many of the biggest raw inputs than the rest of the world combined.
There are also problems of what the civil engineer Emily Grubert has memorably called the “mid-transition”: “this period in between kind of a stable fossil fuel dominated energy system and a future stable, clean energy dominated system.” It is easy enough to imagine the other side of any transition, particularly when so many forces are moving in the right direction. But you have to get to that other side, and that is not just a matter of building out the new system but also, crucially, of maintaining some of the old one too, and in proper balance.
If E.V.s and gas cars share the roads for a decade or two, how do you ensure or design the right mix of charging stations and gas pumps, and how do you map their locations? At what point do gas stations become unprofitable, and what happens then? These may seem like relatively technical questions, but the problems of the mid-transition extend to the matter of employment structures and pensions, the need for skilled labor to manage site cleanup and safety and the decline of funding from gas taxes for maintenance and infrastructure as gas consumption declines (if not all that rapidly to zero).
The vast majority of electric vehicles are now sold in the world’s richer economies, and mid-transition challenges like building out new charging infrastructure are potentially much larger in lower income countries. But there, at least for now, the electric vehicle revolution is taking a very different shape — often with two or three wheels rather than four. Globally, there are 10 times as many electric scooters, mopeds and motorcycles on the road as true electric cars, accounting already for almost half of all sales of those vehicles and responsible already for eliminating more carbon emissions than all the world’s four-wheel E.V.s. It’s been something of a secret revolution here, too: In 2020, Americans bought twice as many e-bikes as they did E.V.s. As with everything else on climate, it’s not one story unfolding but many, and all at once.