Here's a worry. According to a study of 7000 motorists in Europe reported in June last year, people with electric vehicles (EVs) drive more than those in petrol-driven vehicles. Another British study in October suggested the same.
The differences were quite small: European EV owners were doing about 5 per cent more driving, and in Britain it was 12 per cent. But the British study also found owners of hybrid cars were doing a whopping 57 per cent more driving than their petrol-propelled counterparts.
Both these studies overturn earlier suggestions that EV owners drive less. The trend seems to be that as electric vehicles become more popular, people are driving them more. This is bad news for road safety, traffic congestion and, counterintuitively, for climate change.
There are two obvious reasons for the trend. One is that battery range in EVs is growing fast: you can make longer trips more easily now.
The other is something economists call the Jevons paradox. This occurs when a thing becomes more efficient but the efficiency doesn't lead to savings, because it gets used more. Many owners of heat pumps know it well: your power bill hasn't gone down, but you've got a warmer house.
Carmakers are busy making their EVs cool so everyone will want one: stylish, super-fast acceleration, more safety features, better batteries. It sounds like the right thing to do. If they made clunky little boxes that no one wanted to drive, no one would want to buy them either.
But the Jevons paradox is one reason EVs are not the solution that will save the planet or, for that matter, help much with anything else.
Don't get me wrong. If you need to buy a car, and you can find one at the right price, buy an EV or a hybrid. They're definitely better for the environment than the alternatives. Especially if you buy a small one. But, well, there are so many buts.
The first is safety. An EV battery typically weighs about 450kg, compared to the 50kg weight of a typical tank of petrol, and the weight means the car takes longer to stop.
EVs are silent, so pedestrians and cyclists find it harder to hear them coming. Now that half the deaths and serious injuries on our roads are to people not in a car, this is a big issue.
A related safety issue: size. Big cars are more likely than small cars to kill you if they hit you, but despite that SUV sales globally have doubled in the last 10 years.
EV manufacture is following this trend, with a fierce contest now underway in the US and China to dominate the electric SUV and double-cab ute markets.
Big cars also undermine attempts to lower speed limits. Every driver knows that the larger the car, the slower it feels you're travelling. Large cars shift upwards the idea of "natural speed", which many people use to argue against lower speed limits.
And the climate? EV manufacture releases more greenhouse gases and other pollutants than petrol-vehicle manufacture, and their brakes and tyres cause emissions too. But the Climate Change Commission estimates that over the life of an EV, there's a 60 per cent reduction in emissions.
That's helpful, but it's not a silver bullet.
The charging parks at Northwest used to be tumbleweeds, but rapidly filled up after the Clean Car Discount. Today, all 8 slots taken (albeit 1 by a cheeky ICE vehicle) pic.twitter.com/ExgY1zbuCO— Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) April 25, 2022
Is there an issue with the electricity? Currently in New Zealand, our largely renewable energy is topped up with dirty imported coal, mainly from Indonesia. As the number of EVs grows, so will the need for more renewable power, from wind and the sun. It's already happening, but slowly.
Still, there's no reason to panic just yet. EVs charged overnight at home don't put much extra demand on the power grid: we're not short of power when everyone's sleeping.
It's true there are supply chain uncertainties, although it's probably even more true of petrol-driven vehicles. Covid caused a severe shortage of semiconductor chips and, once the war in Ukraine began, Russia's control of essential metals like nickel and copper caused prices to soar. Tesla's Elon Musk is so worried he says he's prepared to fight Vladimir Putin.
EVs also need cobalt, which mainly comes from mines in Congo controlled by China.
More than all this, EVs can't solve the transport emissions issue on their own. Paul Winton, from the 1Point5 Project and a member of the All Aboard Aotearoa coalition of climate-focused lobby groups, has calculated that if half our vehicle fleet was electric by 2030, Auckland would reduce emissions by 1588 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide. That's 44 per cent of the expected emissions level of 3580kt by 2030, if there's no other change to current transport behaviours.
It's a big whack of what we have to achieve. But it isn't big enough. As the IPCC has reminded us, our focus should be on reducing emissions this decade. Auckland Council has a target of 50 per cent by 2030, although it doesn't have a plan to achieve that. And Winton argues the real target should be 70 per cent. In his analysis we also need to reduce the amount of driving we do.
Perhaps the biggest problem of all is that EVs reinforce car dependency. Car makers know this; it's why they're so thrilled.
In 2018, Auckland had 1.26 million cars on the road. By 2030, that's projected to top 1.6 million. EVs will accelerate the trend, because while their number grows, older petrol-driven cars will become cheaper and likely remain on our roads a very long time. Cars don't rust out and die the way they used to.
We'll have far more cars than now. We already know what will happen if we try to accommodate this by building more roads, extra motorway lanes and more car parks. It will cause a horrendous build-up of traffic and undermine safety and the quality of community life. It will siphon resources from alternatives that could do some good.
We can't solve any of our traffic-related problems unless we reduce the number of cars on the roads. It's that simple.
That will require a whole range of measures: not just better cycling and public transport infrastructure, but steps to make driving less obviously the first choice. That's about reallocating road space and adding costs like congestion charges. Tough calls, perhaps, but we're in tough times now.
The Canadian urban planner Brent Toderian puts it like this: "Here's the blunt reality — reasonably sized electric vehicles need to be the future of cars, but they can't be the future of urban mobility. Fewer cars. Less driving. More inviting mobility options. Better communities and cities. These are the four pillars of the real solution."
All Aboard Aotearoa has taken Auckland Council and Auckland Transport to court this week. They're arguing that the Regional Land Transport Plan adopted last year is unlawful because it will, at best, reduce emissions by only one per cent by 2031, compared to 2016 levels.
"The Land Transport Management Act requires the plan to be consistent with the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport," says Zoe Brentnall of Lawyers for Climate Action, one of the AAA members. "That Policy Statement requires the rapid transition to a low-carbon transport system. This plan does not do that - it does not even come close."
Relying on EVs is a good symptom of the problem AAA is trying to address. EVs will help, but only if they're part of a larger ecosystem of solutions. The risk is, we'll be told we've got the new technology so the problem is solved. It's simply not true.