When 90% of the cars on the road are electric, will we be in the home stretch environmentally, or will we still be pretty much at square one?



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    If that 90% is accomplished over a time span of several decades, long enough for non-fossil fuel electricity generation sources to keep up, it will help. Otherwise…

    The only cost-effective way to presently scale up electricity generation in a significant way, quickly, is to mine and burn more coal. In a smaller way you can increase electricity generation using natural gas and nuclear power. The US is a net importer of both natural gas (about 13% imported) and uranium (85% imported).

    Also, electric cars require things like neodymium, lanthanum, and lithium in their motors and batteries. These things are at present almost entirely produced in (and imported from) China (Nd and La) and Chile (more than 50% of US lithium comes from imports, mostly from Chile and Argentina). So the trade off in reducing oil imports is in increasing other imports of things that are mined and have their own environmental impacts.


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    You also have to consider that automobile emissions are only one part of an enormous problem that is not simply limited to air pollution.  Maintaining a serviceable habitat is going to take much more than switching how we fuel our automobiles. It will take massive changes across the spectrum of human activities if we hope the Earth will continue to support us.

    For some perspective, consider some other activites that are major producers of greenhouse gases: shipping (boats, airplanes, trains, trucks), manufacturing, livestock production, factory farming, etc. If you consider all of these factors, then you will see that automobiles, though harmful, are at best a small slice of the total pollution pie.

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    It’s also important to note that the environmental and biological complications that have already been brought about by human activity, for the most part, can’t be undone. For instance, we can’t bring back the massive number of species that we’ve already driven to extinction; nor can we reverse the melting of the polar ice caps (itself a source of warming); nor can we bring back the oceanic phytoplankton (which help absorb carbon dioxide, thus mitigating the effects of global warming) that we’ve diminished by 40% between 1950 and 2008. There is no reversing these negative feedback loops; and, what’s more, their complex, compounded effects are virtually impossible to predict. So, in response to the spirit of your question – which is tacitly asking whether or not we can essentially innovate ourselves out of the hole we ourselves dug – I’ll say that electric cars or no electric cars, the revolution that must happen for us to be “in the home stretch environmentally” isn’t technological or scientific, but spiritual (to echo Jimmy Carter). 

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